Once Upon a River

Movie review by
Tara McNamara, Common Sense Media
Once Upon a River Movie Poster Image
Book-based coming-of-age drama has mature material.
  • NR
  • 2020
  • 92 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Themes of self-discovery and resilience. But also suggests that women seek caretaking in their relationships and that motherhood is a woman's role -- if not obligation. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Margo is a complex, strong Native American teen. She's an excellent outdoorswoman who can survive in the elements: She hunts, fishes, and travels by boat. That said, she also makes some reckless choices that have consequences. Positive representations in the supporting cast include Native Americans and a Black man. 

Violence

Shooting and killing deer and rabbit, including skinning it, is shown in the context of hunting. People are shot and sometimes die. Parental loss. Suicide. Incest and statutory rape.

Sex

Sexual encounter that's consensual but also statutory rape, since it involves an adult and a teen; kissing, gasping, moaning. A young man and a 15-year-old girl have sex; her breasts are shown. Teen pregnancy with abortion considered but not chosen.

Language

Strong language includes: "asses," "bitch," "hell," "s--t," and several uses of "f--k." Men taunt a teen with the words "slut,""nympho," and "whore," as well as sexual gestures. Racist slur.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A young man and a teen smoke pot. Older character provides alcohol to a minor. Drinking hard liquor in the morning. Wine offered to a minor. Frequent smoking. Teens drink beer.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Once Upon a River is a coming-of-age story set in 1977 rural Michigan about a teenage Native American girl named Margo (Kenadi DelaCerna). Margo's father is raising her alone, her mother having left them. It's implied that Margo participates willingly in a sexual encounter that's both incestuous and statutory rape; the incident becomes the catalyst for tragedy. After smoking pot with a traveling companion, Margo has a more positive sexual experience (she's shown topless), but her partner is in his 20s, so it's still inappropriate. An unwanted pregnancy brings Margo to an abortion clinic, but she changes her mind after seeing very pregnant women in the waiting room. It's unclear whether they're also there for late-stage terminations or if Margo misunderstands that clinics like Planned Parenthood help women through all stages of pregnancy. Gun use is shown in several capacities: to hunt for food, for self protection, to spark admiration and respect, and to murder. A parent dies. Other violence includes an off-camera suicide and a fistfight. Smoking and drinking are prevalent; adults offer Margo alcohol, and teens drink beer with their father. Strong language includes "f--k" and "s--t," as well as derogatory terms toward women ("slut," "whore").

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What's the story?

Adapted from Bonnie Jo Campbell's novel and set in late-1970s Michigan, ONCE UPON A RIVER follows Native American teen Margo (Kenadi DelaCerna), whose father has taught her valuable survival skills. When tragedy and trauma occur, Margo slips away on her rowboat to find the mother who abandoned her.

Is it any good?

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.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about teen sex and pregnancy. Can you think of other movies and TV shows that have tackled these subjects? How does Once Upon a River's approach compare?

  • What is a "coming of age story"? Is this a "road" movie? What are the hallmarks of those genres?

  • How does the film depict drug and alcohol use? Is it glamorized? Are there realistic consequences? Why does that matter?

  • Is this a feminist film or just a film about a female? What's the difference? Do you consider Margo a role model?

  • Does Margo's journey seem realistic? What about how she handles her different crises? What do you think happens after the last scene, and why do you think the filmmaker ended her story there?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love films about strong young women

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