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‘Once Upon a River’: A backwoods journey dense with beautiful images and brilliant acting

A teenage girl in peril takes to the water to find her estranged mother in the stark but haunting slice of rough-hewn life.

Margo (Kenadi DelaCerna) puts her outdoor skills to use in a rowboat escape from her small town in “Once Upon a River.”
Film Movement

“Mom always said she never belonged here with me and Daddy. … She had to go find herself, she said. And she couldn’t do that here.” – Fifteen-year-old Margo Crane, in 1977 small-town rural Michigan, in “Once Upon a River.”

Beautiful. Shocking. Moving. Haunting. Lovely.

Lasting.

First-time feature writer-director (and Chicago area product) Haroula Rose’s “Once Upon a River” is all that and more. It’s a stark, authentic slice of a certain kind of rough-hewn life — the calloused-hands world we see in gritty films such as “Frozen River” and “Winter’s Bone,” “Leave No Trace” and “American Woman.” There’s no trace of Hollywood glamour or gloss to the story, no hint of actor-y flourishes in the deeply resonant performances. Just a lean, finely crafted, memorably real story announcing the presence of a major new filmmaking talent — and a young actor with the promise of limitless potential.

Kenadi DelaCerna gives a heartbreakingly effective performance as Margo Crane, a teenager living with her Native American father Bernard (Tatanka Means), a good man who is doing his best to raise Margo after her mother abruptly abandoned the family a year prior, when Margo was just 14. Living next door are the Murrays, who control the town and appear to be an All-American family — but there’s a dark and ugly side to this bunch. The patriarch Cal (Coburn Goss, effectively slimy), who is Bernard’s half-brother, has taken a strong (perhaps unhealthy) interest in Margo, much to the disgust of his racist, bullying, jerk sons Junior (Arie Thompson) and Billy (Sam Straley).

(SPOILERS AHEAD.)

On successive nights, events transpire that leave Margo a rape victim, Cal shot and wounded, Bernard dead. Before the sheriffs can question Margo, she hops into a small boat given to her by her grandfather and sets off down the river, a crumpled letter in her pocket containing the last known address of her mother.

“Once Upon a River” becomes a road movie on the water. Margo’s father taught her well; she is an accomplished hunter and outdoorswoman, and she knows how to navigate the river and the surrounding woods. She enlists the help of a couple of backwoods poachers named Paul (Evan Linder) and Brian (Dominic Bogart), who have bought deer meat from Margo in the past. (These two guys look like villains, but this movie is too smart to take the easy dramatic path.) There’s a romantic interlude involving a Native American named Will (Ajuawak Kapashesit), and an unlikely friendship forged with a trailer-dwelling, crusty old coot known as Smoke (John Ashton, a reliable character actor since “Beverly Hills Cop”), who has emphysema and is leaning on Death’s Door but refuses to give up his cigarettes.

With Margo providing the occasional voice-over narration, “Once Upon a River” is bathed in warm and gorgeous autumnal tones belying the predicament of a 15-year-old girl with a shotgun and a fishing kit, living on the run. (And that’s not the sum of Margo’s dilemma. There’s more coming.) Margo finally finds her mother (Lindsay Pulsipher), who is taken by surprise and says it’s really good to see Margo, as if they’re Facebook friends and not mother and daughter. The house is so white: white curtains, white walls, white lamps, white rugs, white sofa, white picture frames, big white Cadillac in the driveway, white mom who is more worried about her fiancé finding out she has a teenage daughter than making amends. Like many an interlude in “Once Upon a River,” even when poetic license is exercised and there’s a kind of enhanced realism at play, it’s done in nuanced, subtle and believable ways.

“Once Upon a River” is a living prose poem filled with beautifully framed images and featuring some of the strongest writing and acting you’ll find in any movie this year. It’s not to be missed.

Before the virtual release on Friday, “Once Upon a River” will screen at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the ChiTown Movies drive-in, 2343 S. Throop St. The writer-director and cast members will attend for a postshow Q&A. Tickets: elevatedfilmschicago.com