Once Upon a Lifetime is a marvelous fantasy-drama written, produced, and directed by David Skato. It opens with a little girl (Raquel Reyes) covered in cobwebs sitting alone in an abandoned house. We then meet a little boy, Thomas (Phoenix Nicholson), who is being bullied at school by the taller Clyde (Krystian Alexander Lyttle). Thomas locates the cobweb girl in the schoolyard, admiring the intricate beauty of a leaf. When Thomas asks where she’s from, she doesn’t know.
The girl follows Thomas home, which alarms his mother, Tatyana (Arie Thompson). Tatyana finds out her name is Joy but doesn’t know her last name or anything else. Joseph (Jensen Atwood), Tatyana’s husband, doesn’t like all this but allows Joy to stay the night. However, the next morning the family discovers Joy (Sophia Glemaud) has aged close to seven years while sleeping. Attempts to have doctors and social services involved yield nothing, as no one believes Joy is growing so fast.
Joy seems undisturbed by all this, as she is enjoying all the little details of living. Thomas lets her know he is worried about his parents getting divorced. Tatyana lets Joy know that is not going to happen, even though she doubts Joseph’s fidelity. Then Joy (Melanie Thompson) grows another four years overnight.
Three decades ago, I was floored by To Sleep With Anger, another family drama that employed fantasy elements. It uses magic to enhance the dynamics of the family drama. This is a story method previously developed in Central American literature called magical realism, a technique that has only appeared in cinema sparingly. So sparingly that I have only seen it in Charles Burnett’s landmark film and now Once Upon a Lifetime. The fact that black independent filmmakers made both movies about people of color just increases the presence of magic at work.
“…the next morning the family discovers Joy has aged close to seven years while sleeping.”
The magic is never the focus and is kept undefined, allowing day-to-day reality to remain in the forefront. Skato’s screenplay maintains a strong drive by keeping the approach simple with the fantasy elements. As Joy magically goes through a lifetime in months, instead of being scared or bitter, the condition gives her an appreciation of the basic foundations of life, such as family, spirituality, and mashed potatoes. Also, by having spirituality being a part of life’s fabric instead of the whole cloth, the filmmaker keeps the tone inspirational without turning it into a parable.
Some technical flaws crop up here and there, all dealing with sound editing. Some sequences have different levels of background noise, making a hissing noise drop in and out between actors’ lines. Also, the shot composition is functional but nowhere near as inspired as the material.
However, the secret weapon that takes Once Upon a Lifetime to a higher level is the powerhouse performance by Arie Thompson. Her mastery of craft makes the whole thing work. Without Thompson making the struggles and pain of Tatyana’s situation real, the movie could have quickly fallen into sentimental melodrama. Her performance is a living, breathing tapestry of reaction and emotion that should be noticed and studied.
With Once Upon a Lifetime, Skato gives us a new dimension to the family drama and a fantastic new entry in the history of black independent cinema.
"…Arie [Thompson's]...mastery of craft makes the whole thing work."