‘Some come to the river to remember, some come to forget’ is one of the closing lines in this bleak but essentially gentle story of a young Native American girl in Michigan, circa 1977. It looks striking, but also bleak, and isn’t the kind of location I’d be keen to set my time machine for based on this hard-scrabble evidence of brutal backwater life.
Abused by her own family members, Margot Crane (Kenadi DelaCerna) is released through an act of violence that rewards her agency, but a sudden, unwanted pregnancy sends her in the direction of her birth mother, with a few significant pit-stops along the way. Any good men in the story are humbled by incapacity; John Ashton makes a big impact here as Smoke, a man dying with emphysema who is one of the few to take the time to get to know her. It’s always great to see Ashton, obviously an icon after Beverly Hills Cop, but doing great work in a different kind of role here. Otherwise, men steal her boat, try to sleep with her, and cover their tracks by pulling the blanket of the patriarchy firmly over the heads of their friends and family.
Haroula Rose adapts Bonnie Jo Campbell’s book, and this voyage up the river offers some picaresque, episodic encounters, reflected through Margot’s stop-start development. Margot’s story has a monotonous beat at times but that’s because she finds herself knocking against the same doors again and again. Her mother is her goal, but not her destination, and Once Upon A River in general offers a soothing ride that’s punctuated by moments of threat and violence. DelaCerna offers a memorable presence here; her character rarely speaks, but when she does, she has real impact.
Once Upon A River fashionably elides some of the drama that might have made for a more intense watch, but it’s still a darkly lyrical piece that commands attention for a fully-realised female lead. There’s plenty of films about black or transgender rights, but not enough that deal with the raw deal that women get from a male-dominated society, and even if it’s a tough watch at times, Rose’s film offers a useful crash course in exactly what’s wrong.
Thanks to Bulldog Distibution for access, in UK Virtual Cinemas & On Demand 7 May 2021.