Grade: B-
Drama
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. More