Once Upon a River

A little walk in the woods.

(2020) Drama (Film MovementKenadi DelaCerna, John Ashton, Tatanka Means, Ajuwak Kapashesit, Kenn E. Head, Lindsay Pulsipher, Dominic Bogart, Evan Linder, Sam Staley, Coburn Goss, Arie Thompson, Josephine Decker, H.B. Ward, Claudia Church, Bradley Grant Smith, Angela Rak, Jules Reid, Shane Simmons, William Sidney Parker, Kayla Frischkorn. Directed by Haroula Rose

 

It goes without saying that the world can be a cruel, difficult place even under the best of circumstances. Thus has it always been, and chances are, always will be despite our best intentions.

Nobody needs to ell that to Maggie Crane (DelaCerna). At 15, she lives with her Native American father Bernard (Means) on the Stark River in Michigan. It’s 1977 and the battle between conservationists and industrialists is in full swing. Maggie’s mom Luanne (Pulsipher) has abandoned the family, wanting a much different lifestyle than her husband was willing or able to give her.

Now the sole parent, Bernard teaches her how to shoot a gun, how to fish, how to be self-sufficient – lessons taught to him by his own father. Those lessons are going to come in handy when a tragedy leaves one person dead and another injured, forcing Maggie to leave her home in search of her mother. Travelling down the river, she meets Will (Kapashesit), a full-blooded Cherokee, who encourages her to explored her own native heritage. She also meets and is briefly caretaker for Smoke (Ashton), an emphysema-ridden old curmudgeon who is resisting being put in an assisted living facility by his family, while continuing to live life pretty much on his own terms – which includes continuing to smoke heavily, not a good idea for someone with a lung disease.

Maggie’s journey is one that could have made for a fascinating film, but the director makes some odd choices here. We get little idea what’s going on inside Maggie; she seems to be merely reacting to what goes on around her and often relies on older men for guidance and help. She makes an extraordinary number of poor decisions – not unusual for a 15-year-old girl – but doesn’t seem to learn anything or really take much ownership for them. It becomes frustrating for the viewer as we see her making these bad calls and we never really get a sense of what is driving her to them. After awhile, we tend to lose interest.

That’s a shame, because DelaCerna shows signs of being a gifted actress. Her performance here is very natural and at times spectacular; perhaps with a different director she might have turned in one of those monster performances that put her on everbody’s radar, but as it is I’m sure many of those who see her in this film will be keeping an eye out for her next one.

So, too, with cinematographer Charlotte Hornsby, who is given some beautiful scenery to work with and turns in a master class of near-perfect framing and perspective. It is not often you notice a cinematographer for things beyond having an eye for a pretty picture, but the invention Hornsby shows here shows her to be someone who needs to be working on important projects.

Based on a novel by Bonnie Jo Campbell, the movie turns a blind eye to Maggie’s Native America heritage for the most part, and seems to see her journey as simply a means of taking her from one bad situation to another. This might have been originally meant to be a coming of age film; if so, it would need to show some kind of growth in the main character, and I left the film feeling that Maggie was doomed to continue making the same kind of mistakes over and over again. I suppose that’s true of a lot of people, but it certainly isn’t something I want to watch an entire movie about.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautiful scenery.
REASONS TO AVOID: Watching teens make bad decisions isn’t my idea of fun.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, sexuality and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tatanka Means is the son of Russell Means, the Native American activist.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Peanut Butter Falcon
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Out of the Fight

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