If asked to provide a simple description of ONCE UPON A RIVER, the debut film from writer/director Haroula Rose adapted from the 2011 novel of the same name by Michigan author Bonnie Jo Campbell, I would say it’s both an American gothic tale set in 1977 Michigan and Alice in Wonderland meets Huckleberry Finn. But it’s not so simple. The film is a complex, coming-of-age parable set in a very specific time and place, and makes you feel nostalgic for it, even if it’s an era you never personally experienced.
Set in the town of Murrayville, our protagonist is young Margo Crane who lives with her father along the Stark River (a fictional tributary of the Kalamazoo River). She excels at hunting, fishing, and boating in her teak-made canoe The River Rose. It’s a simple life, devoid of extravagance, but a life she enjoys. Yet we learn that Margo’s mother left a year ago and hasn’t been heard from since, which we see has deeply affected Margo and her understanding of relationships. So, when tragedy strikes, it sets her on a journey to find her new place in life and puts her skills of self-reliance to the test. As she traverses up and down the river, she passes in and out of the lives of different characters who each make an impression on her and give her reason to find trust in people once again.
In her feature film debut, Kenadi DelaCerna draws a tremendous amount of empathy as Margo. She’s a character that rarely says what she’s actually thinking, but DelaCerna expertly conveys the spirit and attitude of this destitute wanderer with every glance and blink of her eyes. DelaCerna’s inexperience perhaps even benefits her portrayal, as Margo is thrown into new and sometimes uncomfortable situations. With every bit of hesitance or discomfort she might reveal, it adds something to the character. And as the weight of this journey grinds her down, her expressions of exhaustion are put upon the viewer, as we must hopelessly watch and wish to catch her as she falls deeper down the rabbit hole.
Though the film is set in a fictional area of Michigan, and was actually filmed in Illinois, what grounds it in our world is the gorgeous cinematography from Charlotte Hornsby, who gives the river character at every moment available. Between scenes, her footage of the bare trees, the full moon, and flowing river offer a sense of ease, and in many ways comforts us that this story will find a way to end happily. Because the river is as much a character as any of the people Margo meets; it certainly remains the only constant in her journey and sometimes serves as her only ally.
For those familiar with the novel, the river’s place in the story is equally as strong as Campbell envisioned, and Rose even adds new dimensions to Margo, such as a greater emphasis on her Native American ancestry. The film is actually much more kind to Margo than the novel, with many subplots altered or withheld entirely, but nevertheless, the settings and characters in the film are just as real and just as familiar as those on the page. As Michiganders especially, these are people we know and places we’ve been, and the film is ripe with emotion and sentiment we can all connect with.
I can recommend the novel just as strongly as the film, and I’m very excited to talk with Bonnie Jo Campbell, Haroula Rose and producer David Macias this Saturday at 5:00 PM on the Michigan Theater’s Facebook Live! It should be a very spirited conversation, and I hope to see your comments and questions so be sure to set a reminder.
And for those who plan on attending the theater this weekend, it will be a pleasure to see you all once again. We’re very excited to open our doors and safely get back to business, and I’m particularly excited about The Forty-Year-Old Version, which was a hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Have a terrific weekend.