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Once Upon a River review – teenager’s waterborne tale of survival

The Guardian - Tue May 4 12:00

Mark Twain meets Winter’s Bone in this slice of Americana from first-time feature director Haroula Rose. It opens with a Terrence Malick-ish monologue by 15-year-old Margo (Kenadi DelaCerna): “I missed momma, the way she smelled of cocoa butter and white wine.” A tough, resourceful teenager, Margo lives in a rundown town on the banks of the fictional Stark river in Michigan – the kind of place where skeletons of old cars pile up in front yards. Her mom ran out a year earlier (“The river stink drove her crazy”), leaving Margo and her Native American dad Bernard (Tatanka Means). And here the voiceover ends, slightly frustratingly, since Margo rarely speaks, and this is the only time that we get much of a hint of her inner life.

She spends her days fishing in the river and hunting deer; she’s a brilliant shot, much better than the boys. But she is also prey. Her cousin eyes her with a feral leer, though in the end it’s her dad’s white half-brother, uncle Cal (Coburn Goss), who lures her into the toolshed. What happens next is not a rape; Rose’s script is insistent throughout that Margo is a survivor not a victim, at the expense perhaps of giving her much in the way of human feelings. There’s a blankness to her character that’s hard to get beyond.

The incident in the shed leads to a death. Rifle in hand, Margo takes off in her boat – the River Rose – to find her mother. On the way she relies on the kindness of strangers. There’s a borderline creepy guy who her dad sells deer meat to, a young academic who is impressed by Margo’s survival skills, and, best of all, an emphysemic old-timer called Smoke (John Ashton). For an odyssey about a young woman making her own way in the world, it’s a bit disappointing that all the people who help Margo are men.