Producers: Jacqueline E. Ingram and Haroula Rose   Director: Haroula Rose   Screenplay: Haroula Rose   Cast: Kenadi DelaCerna. John Ashton, Tatanka Means, Ajuwak Kapashesit, Kenn E. Head, Lindsay Pulsipher, Dominic Bogart, Evan Linder, Sam Straley and Coburn Goss   Distributor:  Film Movement

Grade: C

Bonnie Jo Campbell’s 2011 novel is the source for Haroula Rose’s debut film, a period coming-of-age story that’s also an episodic down-river odyssey.  Set in 1977 Michigan, it’s about a journey that Native American teen Margo Crane (Kenadi DelaCerna) takes down the Stark River after the tragic death of her father Bernard (Tatanka Means).  Her purpose is to find her mother Luanne (Lindsay Pulsipher), who abandoned them for parts (and reasons) unknown.

Margo is naïve, but no innocent.  An increasingly wild child whose primary pastime is practicing sharpshooting with her rifle, she’s been involved sexually with Cal Murray Coburn Goss), her seedy uncle, leading Bernard to get very strict with her.  It’s that situation that led to the death of Cal, and to Bernard’s killing by Cal’s son Billy (Sam Straley), and Margo’s flight in her grandfather’s rowboat.  At first she turns for help to rugged Brian (Dominic Bogart), but when his grubby friend Paul (Evan Linder) shows up, she thinks better about staying with them and takes off alone.   Luckily she takes her rifle along, and uses it to hunt for food.

Along the way downriver she encounters Will ( Ajuwak Kapashesit), a well-mannered young man travelling to a teaching post.  She shares a meal—and a blanket—with him before he departs, leaving her, as it will be revealed, pregnant. 

Taking to the river again, she winds up at the decrepit house of Smoke (John Ashton), an elderly man who’s quite ill, and helps when she finds him trapped under a piece of machinery.  He offers her a shower and a place to stay, though his pragmatic friend Fishbone (Kenn E. Head) advises against it.  She stays for quite a while, taking care of Smoke and earning his affection, concern, and, as it turns out, much more.

Before that, however, she journeys further down river and finds her mother (Lindsay Pulsipher), who tries to explain her abandonment of the family and offers Margo help—of a sort.  At that point the girl is forced to make a life-changing decision.

“Once Upon a River” has a great many rough edges, especially about Margo’s choices, that will disturb some viewers, even if they find the ending some compensation.  Perhaps it would work better were it not for the almost impassive performance by first-timer DelaCerna, who fails to convey Margo’s introspection and growth.  More winning is the convincingly cantankerous one from Ashton, though he doesn’t succeed in illuminating old Smoke’s attitude to the girl.   Head adds some zing as likable Fishbone.

Otherwise, though, matters are less happy.   Kapashesit is as impassive as DelaCerna, but to no more effect, and Pulsipher comes across as clumsily hesitant as the young heroine’s selfish mother.  (Yes, the character is meant to be nonplussed at her daughter’s reappearance, but the actress appears genuinely lost.)  The rest of the cast is adequate, with Straley pushing the anger to excess, though his final scene is affecting.  This is not a big-budget film, and its technical side—Charlotte  Hornsby’s cinematography, Amy Frazzini’s production design, the editing by Steven Lambiase and Sofi Marshall—are at best adequate.  The score by Zac Rae adds little impact.

“Once Upon a River” has affecting moments, but in the end it’s a rather meandering journey to hard-won self-understanding.