Once Upon a River tells the story of Margo Crane, a young biracial Native American girl, who must navigate the murky waters of becoming a woman after a series of tragic events. The story is rather grim, but with a strong performance from Kenadi Delacerna the movie becomes much more watchable.
Margo faces a series of hardships starting with being sexually manipulated by an older man in her life, which results in her father being murdered. She then decides to embark on a journey to find her mother, who abandoned her family long ago.
Margo’s journey has an interesting “go back to your roots” narrative, that has the young Native American girl using her knowledge of the land, river and hunting that her Native American father instilled in her. She has very little connection to that part of her heritage that goes beyond her father, who is now deceased. She does encounter a young man who provides a modicum of happiness and release, while also being that reminder of who she is. He even reminds her that the people who occupied this land did not intend on their people survive, but she does survive.
However, the film is only about her making one decision after another to survive, but there is no true understanding of her motivation or goals. There is enough to ascertain what is happening with Margo internally, but the character and the movie doesn’t really engage with her on a deeper level.
The film is well made, with Haroula Rose’s assured directing and Charlotte Hornsby capturing the beauty of nature that surrounds Margo in a very vivid way. However, no matter how well directed and acted in the film is, it doesn’t overcome the monotony of the narrative. Margo is not a compelling enough character as so much of her emotional and mental journey is internalized. Despite Delacernas’ ability to convey so much with her face, it doesn’t distract from the fact that there is very little going on to give us the deep character study and personal growth that Margo inevitably does undergo.
In the end, a fearless heroine is a wonder to behold, and for that alone, there is a reason to watch this film.
Once Upon A River is available in virtual cinemas starting October 2.
by Ferdosa Abdi
Ferdosa (she/her) is a lifetime student of cinema. Three of her current favourite films are: Addams Family Values, Cinderella (2015), and Emma. (2020). On Twitter you can see her support women-led cinema, her ongoing love/hate relationship with Disney, her totally healthy obsession with Eva Green, and her great admiration for Guillermo del Toro.