Review by Sean Boelman
Based on the bestselling book by Bonnie Jo Campbell, the coming-of-age film Once Upon a River is another coming-of-age drama from an interesting perspective. And while it is nice to see an indigenous-led film in a genre that all too often ignores their stories, it falls victim to a lot of tropes that make its emotions come off as inauthentic.
The film tells the story of a young girl who sets out on a journey to find her estranged mother after suffering a series of tragedies and traumas. Like many other coming-of-age films, Haroula Rose’s film is more about the emotion and overall growth than the individual beats, and so some of its predictability can be excused.
However, at only an hour and a half long, the film’s pacing is completely off. It takes a significant amount of time before the protagonist actually sets out on her journey, and once she does, there isn’t enough time for her to meditate on the obstacles along the way. This likely comes down to the struggle to adapt a book’s worth of material into a single feature film.
There are definitely some very interesting things happening in the film thematically, but none of them is explored to a particularly substantial level of depth. For example, the film’s exploration of abuse and trauma shows the potential to be something deep and empathetic, but Rose fails to do anything with it beyond using it as a plot device to push the character along on her path.
Ultimately, the character’s story is very compelling, but her arc is simply too conventional and predictable to be particularly resonant. The thing that this film is so desperately missing is a feeling of authenticity. Had Rose leaned less into the melodrama and more into the emotional aspect of the story, it would have worked much better.
Kenadi DelaCerna’s lead performance is a big part of what makes this film stand out. This is her first ever role, and yet she has such a natural screen presence about her that she easily inhabits the character. In supporting roles, John Ashton and Tatanka Means are both solid, although this is very much DelaCerna’s show.
The biggest successes of this film, though, occur in a visual sense. This is a gorgeous film to look at as the protagonist makes her journey along the river. Charlotte Hornsby’s cinematography is magnificent, taking advantage of the natural beauty in which the film is shot to create aesthetically-appealing frames.
Once Upon a River is one of those films that meets the minimum standards but doesn’t do a whole lot to exceed them. What is frustrating is that it obviously wants to be more than it is, yet it is all too often held back by convention.
Once Upon a River is now streaming in partnership with indie theaters. A list of participating locations can be found here.