Once Upon a River (2019) Review
A young Native-American teen goes looking for her estranged mother across 1970s Michigan in this languid coming-of-age drama.
The most obvious reference point for Once Upon a River would be something like Huckleberry Finn, but at its best Haroula Rose’s feature debut (adapted from Bonnie Jo Campbell’s 2011 novel of the same name) echoes the impressionistic feel of Terrence Malick’s The New World - matching the flow of life and the river in harmony.
It doesn’t always work, and it certainly must sound pretentious, but Once Upon a River is grounded enough to allow it.
Once Upon a River manages to navigate some difficult themes with clarity
Margo Crane (Kenadi DelaCerna in her first screen role) is a young Native American, living in Michigan with her father Bernard (Tatanka Means). Her mother left when Margo was young, saying she couldn’t stomach the stench of the river any longer. The life her mother rejected is all Margo and her father have.
Whittling away the hours, Margo pings cans and paper targets with an air-rifle. Her keen eye is a source for fragile jealousy from white cousins, though it brings her closer with her uncomfortably predatory uncle (Coburn Gloss).
Following a violent tragedy, she escapes, taking to the woods with some provisions and her rifle. No longer able to return home, she sets out to reunite with her mother, wherever she may be.
While it may sound thrilling, it’s more of a pensive stroll through the wilderness, an odyssey of self-discovery through Western iconography - but Once Upon a River does manage to navigate some difficult themes with clarity.
A lot of the film’s serenity rests on Charlotte Hornsby’s camerawork, which moves without urgency. It’s surefooted, and often breathtaking, taking its time as it moves through the beauty of America’s heartlands.