“ONCE UPON A RIVER”
A Native American Coming-of-Age Story
Margo Crane (Kenadi DelaCerna) is a Native American teenager in 1977. She lives in a cabin with her father Bernard (Tatanka Means) in rural Michigan and thinks that she is a wonder with a rifle.
When Margo learns of the death of her father Bernard, she takes her family canoe down the Stark River to find her estranged mother Luanne (Lindsay Pulsipher), who abandoned them for reasons that are not clear to us.
Margo is not the ideal person. We learn that she had sex with her uncle Cal (Murray Coburn Goss) and this led to her father killing Cal. Then Cal’s angry son Billy (Sam Straley) retaliated by killing Bernard. Margo, then, turns for help to Brian (Dominic Bogart), but his i friend Paul (Evan Linder) appears and she reconsiders and decides to act on her own. She takes her rifle along and uses it to hunt for food and protection.
She meets Will ( Ajuwak Kapashesit), shares a meal with him and makes love with him and becomes pregnant. Going back to the river again, she meets Smoke (John Ashton), an elderly man who is ill and is advised to move on after staying for a while to take care of Smoke. She eventually finds selfish mother (Lindsay Pulsipher), who tries to explain why she left the family.
We see Margo’s growing pains and how deeply affected she is by her situation and, by and large, this is quite a depressing film. There are several comedic moments but the story meanders and at times is hard to follow.
This is director Haroula Rose’s debut feature film and it is filled with laconic, intense dialogue expressing the desperation of the characters living in rural Michigan. The film features Kenadi DelaCerna’s beautiful performance as Margo Crane and the rest of the cast is also excellent. Conflicted relationships are brought to the forefront and provide the center that complements the rustic river scenes that show us a natural word that is more submissive than vivid. The story is told in the tradition of Huck Finn.
Margo’s life is disrupted when she becomes part of a family tragedy that causes her to escape and to travel upriver on a journey to find her estranged mother, the only family she has left. We see an individual in nature through medium shots that keep a focus on family dynamics and other forms of personal interaction. Margo is independent minded, a young grown-up that has lived her life among confused, dissatisfied school kids and their parents that are equally astray. However, once she begins her journey, she seems to be in harmony with her element. She finds temporary guardians, who, unlike the locals from whom she is escaping, treat her with respect and accept her ways of being an ace shot with a rifle and proficient with living off the land.