Parents' Guide to

Once Upon a River

By Tara McNamara, Common Sense Media Reviewer

age 15+

Book-based coming-of-age drama has mature material.

Movie NR 2020 92 minutes
Once Upon a River Poster Image

A Lot or a Little?

What you will—and won't—find in this movie.

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Margo Crane is admirable in many ways, but her story is also complex and tragic. She has superior hunting and shooting skills: She can dress a deer, skin a rabbit, and get herself up and down the river on her rowboat. She can survive on her own -- which she does after (spoiler alert) her father dies in a tragedy in which she played a part. Movies love to portray high school girls as chatty and animated, but we know that many teens don't say much, keep their feelings to themselves, and appear somewhat expressionless -- this is Margo. While DelaCerna plays the character as written, it's hard to know how Margo feels about the events happening to her and the choices she makes. This allows viewers to project their own feelings upon her, but the vagueness may leave parents unsure about the film as a choice for teens.

The first domino drops when Margo loses her virginity to her creepy Uncle Cal (Coburn Goss), the town ladykiller. Her feelings about this incestuous statutory rape are cloudy; as the encounter unfolds, she seems to embrace it. While Margo's father (Tatanka Means) instantly acts to show it was unacceptable, Margo's initial attitude is pretty far removed from how most adults would want kids to perceive a sex crime. Other scenes are equally unsettling, including a sensual lovemaking scene between Margo and a young man who's closer to her age but still outside the bounds of the law. And while this survivalist shows that she's capable of making her own way, she jumps from man to man to man, all of whom are caretakers of sorts. The film also conveys a strong opinion about motherhood as a woman's role, if not obligation. Call it nuanced, call it complicated, or call it unsure of its messaging. Once Upon a River is ultimately a feminist tale that's also kind of not.

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