Grade: B-
Not rated (would be PG-13 for brief nudity and adult elements)

Thus far in her career, Chicago-born musician-actress-filmmaker Haroula Rose is probably best known for her soundtrack contribution to American Horror Story and her involvement as an associate producer for Fruitvale Station. Like the latter, her first directorial feature, Once Upon a River, also tackles a serious subject and endemic problem.

Every 73 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted, with one out of six women the victim of an attempted or successful rape. Youths between the ages of 12 and17 are the most vulnerable. Fifty-five percent of sexual assaults happen at or near the victim’s home, and it isn’t usually “stranger danger”. More often it’s a friend of the family, a neighbor, or even a family member. And in an average year, it’s estimated that there are anywhere from 1.3 to 1.5 million runaway and homeless youths in the U.S.

So yeah, this film deals with serious subjects that can be especially relevant for American teens and their parents. While it treats the material in a frank way, there’s nothing gratuitous or sensationalized. Maybe that’s because Once Upon a River has a strong female presence, both behind the camera and onscreen. In addition to directing, Rose wrote the screenplay based on a novel by Bonnie Jo Campbell and also shared a producing credit. The film was shot by cinematographer Charlotte Hornsby (Hair Wolf), the production design, set decoration, costume design, and makeup were all done by women, and the casting director was also a woman. Onscreen, New York-trained actress Kenadi DelaCerna carries the film with her strong presence as a biracial 15 year old—younger than her usual range.

NPR called the novel’s main character, Margo Crane, “the most realistic underage runaway in modern fiction,” and that’s true for this 2019 film adaptation as well. Margo has been raised by her Native American father (Tatanka Means), who gave up drinking the day the girl’s mother left them to “find” herself (which people were doing in the sixties). The film is set in 1977 in the small fictional town of Murrayville in rural Michigan, where prejudice against Native Americans and the class inequity are apparent. Margo appreciates her father and the skills he taught her—she carries around a book about Annie Oakley and has become a crack shot herself—but she clearly misses having a mother in the house and like any teen wants more than life is currently giving her.

When her father’s half-brother begins to “groom” her, we know that there will be an attempted seduction or rape. What we can’t see coming is the chain of tragic events that will result from it, or that Margo would have to leave Murrayville by pushing off in a rowboat on the Stark River—a fictional body of water that’s there for plot and symbolic purposes.

Margo has encounters along the way, including an “erasure” moment where instead of being taken she gives herself freely to a young Cherokee (Ajuawak Kapashesit) who had helped her cover a lot of ground in her journey to reach the last-known address of her mother (Josephine Decker). And, deprived of any assistance from her own family, she finds unlikely guides and helpers in the emphysemic (and ironically nicknamed) chain-smoking old white man “Smoke” (John Ashton) and his Black best friend, Fishbone (Kenn E. Head).

Once Upon a River ironically echoes the “Once Upon a Time” fairy tales that children grow up with, but while it would be tempting to call this a coming-of-age film, Margo’s view of the world and character already seem to have been formed. She’s a skilled survivalist who encounters series of events that put those skills to the test and, if anything, reinforce those interiorized world views—though we don’t really know much about what Margo is thinking. She’s quiet and keeps her thoughts to herself, and that adds to the quiet mystery of the film.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say this is a completely new journey, but it’s an understated, realistic one. We’ve seen many films like it, in one way or another, but the characters and the heart of Once Upon a River make it worth your while. It might be the least preachy, most matter-of-fact treatment of sensitive subjects (rape, murder, abortion, suicide) that you’ll find, which makes it an easier film to watch as a family . . . and discuss.

Once Upon a River did well at the slough of small festivals it participated in, winning awards at the American Film Festival, BendFilm Festival, Boston Film Festival, Gallup Film Festival, Red Nation Film Festival, Sun Valley Film Festival, and Tallgrass International Film Festival. The Chicago Sun-Times called it “Beautiful. Shocking. Moving. Haunting. Lovely. Lasting.” In other words, it’s a promising debut from Rose.

Entire family: No (ages 13 and older)
Run time: 92 min., Color
Studio/Distributor: Film Movement
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Digital 5.1 Surround
Bonus features: C-
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG-13)

Language: 3/10—Minor swearwords used occasionally, but consistent with the film’s understated style and tone 

Sex: 5/10—Two sex scenes, with intercourse depicted but nothing graphic shown in one scene; the other shows bare chests on both parties in muted light in a scene that’s considerably shorter than those shot by men; there’s also a shower scene that shows nothing

Violence: 5/10—Animals are shot and so are two people; there are two deaths in the film, both of them downplayed with nothing graphic shown

Adult situations: 5/10—Margo’s whole journey is really a series of adult situations, and there is both drinking and some drug use, but it’s tastefully handled

Takeaway: Once Upon a River is a solid first feature from Rose, whose style, as reinforced by cinematographer Hornsby, seems to be quietly powerful