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

Lamb


A road trip like none you've ever seen.

A road trip like none you’ve ever seen.

(2015) Drama (The Orchard) Ross Partridge, Oona Laurence, Jess Wexler, Tom Bower, Scoot McNairy, Lindsay Pulsipher, Jennifer Lafleur, Joel Murray, Ron Burkhardt, Mark Kelly, Robert Longstreet, Matt Oberg, Amirah Griffin, Iris Elliott, Drew Langer, Mackenzie Paige, Erin Kennedy Portress, Maggie Raymond, Kathleen Vernon, Jennifer Spriggs . Directed by Ross Partridge

As a society, we tend to be protective – some would say over-protective – of our kids. We try to insure that no harm comes to them, but there are predators out there, particularly those who get their sexual jollies by violating children. Those are the worst kinds of scum, the vilest kind of human being that we can imagine. But do we really imagine what a 47-year-old man can see in an 11-year-old girl?

David Lamb (Partridge) is just such a man. He’s reeling from the death of his father (Burkhardt) and is on the ragged edge of losing his job but also his girlfriend Linny (Wexler) who is getting fed up with David’s passive-aggressive behavior. Depressed and lonely, David finds a place to sit and think on a Chicago street corner in a dodgy neighborhood when he’s approached by Tommie (Laurence), a precocious 11-year-old girl who is trying to bum a cigarette. David reacts by trying to convince her to play a trick on the friends of hers who put her up to the cigarette dodge by pretending to be kidnapped by David. He drags her into his SUV and admonishes her for getting in with him in the first place; “I’m not a bad guy,” he tells he as they drive away, “But I could have been.”

The two begin a fast friendship. Tommie is being raised by her uncaring mom (Pulsipher) and her mom’s even less-caring boyfriend (McNairy). Like David, Tommie is lonely and prone to depression. She needs guidance and David might just be the man to provide it. She agrees to go with him when he proposes a road trip to the cabin his late father once owned. As the two drive to Wyoming through landscapes both desolate and rural, the two will discover that love takes all sorts of forms – and not all of them are what we expect.

Just reading the summary of the plot makes me a little bit squeamish and I’m sure it does most of you as well. This is a bit of a spoiler alert but a necessary one – the movie never goes where you think it’s heading, but that creepiness factor is always there. Partridge, who wrote the screenplay based on the novel by Bonnie Nadzam, has a very thin line to straddle. David is a man who makes a lot of bad choices and there is some evidence that deep down he has a really good heart but holy crap! This is not a good idea and hopefully no 47-year-old men who see this will think this kind of behavior is okay.

Laurence has a difficult role to play and I’m not sure how old she is (IMDb doesn’t specify) but she handles this part with a maturity and self-awareness that is beyond the capability of most juvenile actors. She is never sexual although the situations that she is in have that undertone; she and Partridge dance around the obvious inappropriateness of the situation without crossing any lines, leading the audience to make their own decisions. Other critics have admired that about the movie.

And I can see their point. This is going to make audiences feel massively uncomfortable. We’re really treading in taboo waters here and there are those who are going to excoriate this movie because of it. No matter how you slice it, the relationship is an inappropriate one and even if you say “well, they clearly are good for each other” you have to wonder what a 47-year-old man gets out of a relationship with a child who is too young to be a Girl Scout. It just isn’t healthy.

Wexler is also outstanding in a tiny role that she makes the most of. McNairy and Pulsipher have even briefer roles in thankless parts but they both get the job done nicely. The cinematography is terrific and the score works nicely. The one drawback here is that some people are going to have a problem with the situation, a BIG problem. You’re going to have to decide for yourself how willing you are to endure a film that depicts a situation that is not only likely to make the viewer feel uncomfortable but might make them feel downright hostile…or even squeamish.

REASONS TO GO: Laurence delivers a surprisingly mature performance.
REASONS TO STAY: A very creepy situation that only gets creepier as the movie goes along.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult situations and thematic material as well as adult language; there is nothing overtly sexual but there is certainly an underlying tone.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at South by Southwest 2015.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/25/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lolita
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Oscar Gold begins!