First time feature director Haroula Rose’s Once Upon a River is an adaptation from author Diane Setterfield’s 2018 novel of the same name. The story follows fifteen year old Margo, played by newcomer Kenadi DelaCerna, as she along with her father Bernard, played by Tatanka Means, try to move past the sudden departure of Margo’s mother. Before moving on, I want to make it clear that this review is based solely on the film and not the novel. The film is set in 1977 which is important to keep in mind as it sets the overall tone of the film. Both Margo and her father make ends meet by living off the land: hunting, fishing, selling skins & meat for income. Bernard has stopped drinking since Margo’s mother left and tries his best to help sustain some sort of normalcy in her life.
A unique aspect to the story is that Bernard is Native American which opens a whole new avenue for Margo to explore for herself. Unfortunately due to poor circumstances Bernard is killed before Margo’s eyes which sets her off on a journey to find her mother. Unsure of where to go or how to get there Margo carries on meeting folks along the way. This is where the film took a turn for me because after meeting another Native American in Will, played by Ajuawak Kapashesit, I thought Margo would go on a journey to discover her Native American roots. Instead, we are given a traditional coming of age story where Margo discovers her mother and makes new friends in the process.
The rest of the film is centered on Margo’s relationship to Smoke, played by John Ashton (Beverly Hills Cop, Midnight Run), an elderly musician living his last days alone by the river. The film is thoroughly engaging but I just wish it had gone down a different road because I feel there was more value in Margo becoming self-aware of her people’s history. Especially given the timeframe it is set, there is an abundance of racism and their cultural awareness is almost non-existent. Albeit those points made, this film is carried on the shoulders of actor Kenadi DelaCerna. Her fresh gaze out into the world is that of a naïve, young woman but with the strong, visceral inner strength to hold her own. She is fragile yet strong, weak but courageous; it is an aura that DelaCerna invokes that captures your attention. Ashton is a welcomed addition as Margo’s pseudo father figure, even though Margo takes more care of him, and it is evident that these two would not had made it as far as they had without each other to lean on. Rose presents a sincere, coming of age film that shines bright on the wings of the young, delicate and ferocious Margo.
2.5 out of 5
Film is available via streaming platforms HERE
Follow the Film: