October 5, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Haroula Rose
Culture Representation: Taking place in rural Michigan in 1977, the dramatic film “Once Upon a River” features a cast of Native Americans and white people (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class and the middle-class.
Culture Clash: A 15-year-old girl experiences trauma and tragedies before, during and after her quest to find her mother, who abandoned her family the year before.
Culture Audience: “Once Upon a River” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in coming-of-age stories that lay it on thick with life’s harsh realities.
There will be a point when anyone watching the dramatic film “Once Upon a River” will probably think, “How much more tragedy can one person take? What else can go wrong?” This emotionally moving film tells the story of a 15-year-old Native American girl in Michigan who goes through a lot of trauma in a relatively short period of time and who goes on a quest to find the mother who abandoned her. Kenadi DelaCerna makes a striking feature-film debut as the story’s beleaguered teenage protagonist who finds out how resilient she can be when so many bad things keep happening to her.
“Once Upon a River,” written and directed by Haroula Rose, is adapted from the novel of the same name by Bonnie Jo Campbell. The movie is also Rose’s feature-film debut, and it’s an uncompromising, unrelenting look at issues that go deep when it comes to family problems, feeling isolated, and reaching out to find an emotional connection with someone who cares. The movie is intermittently narrated by the character at the center of the story: Margo Crane, who is 15 when this story takes place in 1977, but the narration is of an older Margo looking back on this period of time in her life.
Margo at age 15 lives with her divorced father Bernard Crane (played by Tatanka Means) in the fictional rural town of Murrayville, Michigan. They are both very emotionally wounded by the fact that Bernard’s wife Luanne (Margo’s mother) abruptly left the year before. As Margo explains in the narration, Luanne (played by Lindsay Pulsipher) only left a note saying that she needed to “go find herself” as the reason why she was abandoning them.
Margo also says that she and her father don’t really talk about Luanne leaving, but Margo knows that her father stopped drinking alcohol the day that Margo’s mother left. In Margo and Bernard’s day-to-day existence that’s shown in the movie, Margo and her father have introverted personalities, but she shows occasional signs of teenage rebellion and wanting to be more independent. Bernard can be protective and he will scold Margaret if she goes out in the woods by herself and doesn’t tell him where she is.
Bernard and Margo live next door to Bernard’s white half-brother Cal Murray (played by Coburn Goss), but Cal has a very different lifestyle than Margo and Bernard. As Margo describes it, Cal pretty much runs the town because the Murray family owns a business (which is not named in the movie) that employs many of the town’s residents. Bernard’s job is not specifically mentioned, but it’s implied that he works for the same company in a low-paying, blue-collar position.
Cal has inherited the business from his late father, who was the father of Bernard. It’s implied but never said outright that Cal’s white father was never married to Bernard’s Native American mother (which would explain why Bernard has a different last name), so Bernard and Margo are treated as the “bastard” members of the family. However, when Bernard and Cal’s father was alive, he gave Margo a canoe called The River Rose.
Bernard and Margo live in a cramped and cluttered small home, while Cal and Cal’s wife and children live in a much larger home and can afford to have regular parties at their house. Cal doesn’t see Bernard and Rose as a threat to take over the business, which is why he’s cordial to them. Cal even invites Margo over for hunting target practice with him and Cal’s two teenage sons: hothead Billy (played by Sam Straley) and mild-mannered Junior (played by Arie Thompson).
Cal is impressed with how good Margo is at target practice (she’s a better shooter than Billy and Junior), so he invites Margo to go hunting with them when hunting season starts. Billy, the younger brother, is very jealous that Margo is getting this attention and praise from Cal. Billy grumbles that Margo’s on-target shooting is “beginner’s luck,” and he gets up in her face and tries to be intimidating when he sees that his father might include Margo in family activities that Billy think should be only for Cal’s children.
Margo is never seen in school, and she apparently has no friends. Her relationship with her father is close, but not close enough where they can openly talk about their feelings with each other about how Luann’s abandonment has affected them. And because the Murray family has higher social status in the community than Margo and Bernard, it’s easy to see why Margo would be flattered and willing to go along with whatever Cal wants.
At one of the house parties at Cal’s home, it soon becomes apparent why Cal was paying special attention to Margo. He offers her a drink from his flask of alcohol, and he compliments her by telling her she looks pretty. Cal then tells Margo that he wants to show how to skin a deer, which is a skill he says she’ll need if they go hunting. He takes her inside a shed in the back of the family home. And then, Cal starts kissing Margo, one thing leads to another, and they have sex. Cal asks Margo if she’s a virgin, and she says yes.
One of the female party guests walks near the shed and sees what’s happening. Margo notices that someone has caught them in the act, and Margo puts a stop to what she and Cal were doing. But within a very short period of time (less than two minutes), an angry Bernard comes storming over and gets in a fist fight with Cal, while yelling at Cal to get away from Margo. Word must’ve traveled very fast.
By this time, people at the party have gathered around to witness the fight, including Cal’s wife Joanna (played by Josephine Decker), who has heard that something wrong has happened between Cal and Margo. Cal looks desperately at his wife and immediately says about Margo, “That little slut lured me in there, but nothing happened.” Joanna takes her husband’s side and orders Bernard and Margo to stay away from her family.
Although Margo is not to blame for Cal’s act of incest and statutory rape, she is the one who is shamed for it by the Murray family. When Billy and his friends see her around town, Billy makes derogatory comments about her. And adding to Margo’s humiliation, her father is now on the outs with the Murray family, which could affect him economically in a town run by the Murrays.
Feelings of embarrassment and anger eventually build up to a point where another confrontation happens that changes Margo’s life for the worse. Without giving away too many details, it’s enough to say that she runs away from home and goes on a journey to find her estranged mother. Margo travels by her canoe on the Stark River, with a rifle for protection and hunting, but she gets some help along the way from various people who give her rides by car.
The first person she turns to for help is a man in his late 30s or early 40s named Billy (played by Dominic Bogart), who has been buying the hunted venison that Margo was selling for extra money before she ran away from home. Billy lives with his brother Paul (played by Evan Linder), who is a recovering meth addict. Although Billy has a mild flirtation with Margo and thinks she’s attractive, he doesn’t cross the line by taking advantage of her. Margo’s real named is Margaret, and Billy affectionately calls her Maggie.
While skinning a hunted rabbit in a park, Margo meets a man in his 20s named Will (Ajuawak Kapashesit), who says he’s from the Cherokee tribe and is originally from Oklahoma. He is traveling because he’s going to start a new job teaching a class at an unnamed school. Margo and Will have an almost instant connection and romantic sparks fly between them.
A grouchy old man named Smoke (played by John Ashton) has the biggest impact on Margo, in ways that neither of them expected. Smoke, who used to be a musician, lives alone and has no children. Smoke got his nickname because he’s a heavy smoker.
Margo convinces him to let her temporarily stay in a camper on his property in exchange for her cooking, cleaning, and hunting for their food. She tells Smoke that she’d like to live there until she can get enough money to travel north. Smoke’s closest friend is nicknamed Fishbone (played by Kenn E. Head), a former bandmate who stops by to visit and sells cigarettes to Smoke. Fishbone is not as curmudgeonly as Smoke, but he has varying degrees of reactions in how involved he wants to get in Margo’s problems.
And she definitely has problems that happen before and after she runs away from home. There are some close calls where it looks like she could be caught and put in the custody of child protective services. And in the midst of being homeless for a good deal of the story, Margo also has to be her own private detective to try to find her mother. It’s not an easy task, since her mother moves around a lot, and this is 1977, before Internet searches were possible. And then, more tragedy strikes.
Despite all the problems that pile on Margo, “Once Upon a River” never reduces her to a pitiful stereotype. She experiences some subtle and not-so-subtle racism, but her journey is mainly dangerous and devastating because she’s an underage girl on her own for most of the story. Margo has to grow up fast, but there many moments that remind viewers that she’s still a child who needs love, guidance and role models she can trust.
A great deal of “Once Upon a River” is about family (either biological or chosen) and looking for a place to belong. Writer/director Rose keeps the tone of the movie as realistic as possible, but some viewers might wonder why Margo never has any female allies in this story while she’s looking for her mother. Is it just an unexplained coincidence or is it because has Margo’s abandonment issues with her mother and therefore doesn’t seem to trust other females? We’ll never know.
What is very apparent though is that DelaCerna gives an absolutely riveting performance that skillfully expresses all the emotions and insecurities of a girl who’s on the cusp of womanhood and dealing with some very difficult issues. Thanks to the nuanced direction of Rose and the excellent cinematography of Charlotte Hornsby, “Once Upon a River” has an impactful way of contrasting Margo’s gritty homeless life with the beauty of the woods and river where she hides. It’s an apt metaphor for someone who’s trying to run away from her problems but is on a journey of finding herself and discovering what kind of person she’s capable of being.
Film Movement released “Once Upon a River” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on October 2, 2020.