AWARD THIS! 2023 NOMINEE! The more threads a thriller has, the more difficult it becomes to manage them all. But, when done right, the payoff is massive. In his indie thriller, Once Upon a Time in the District, writer/director Harold Jackson III’s sizable cast and meandering plot pays off beautifully.
Our story begins innocently enough with three friends Kerri (Judi Johnson), Brandy (Ashley Rios), and Mika (Melan Perez), heading out to a birthday party at a nightclub while helping Mika take her mind off her problematic past. The party is progressing quite well when Kerri meets a nice guy (with a past), Vince (Mark McKinnon). Mika hooks up with a handsome gentleman as the party moves to Brandy’s apartment. While Kerri and Brandy are chatting, Mika bursts into the kitchen holding a bloody knife, her one-night-stand dead. She is in such a state of shock that she doesn’t know if she was defending herself. Against their better judgment, the three decide to bury the body and hope the trouble blows over.
Needing help with the body, Brandy turns to her cousin, Teddy (Antonio Harrison Jr.), who is not thrilled about a dead body in the trunk. Teddy resents even more that he’s now an accomplice. Now, with the body buried, it would be impossible to end the story here, and a series of unfortunate events begin to unravel. First, there’s homicide detective Jack McMann (Danny Gavigan), who gets caught up in the investigation of the missing man Mika killed. But, Jack has his own problems regarding a death row inmate who might be innocent.
Here is where Once Upon a Time in the District goes to unexpected territory. Teddy owes fifty grand to a sadistic thug Demond (Karon Riley). Since he needs to pay back Demond by the end of the week, so Teddy blackmails Kerri, Brandy, and Mika for the money. The last piece of the puzzle involves the upcoming mayoral election, which spins the story far beyond the boundaries of a simple murder and cover-up.
“…Mika bursts into the kitchen holding a bloody knife, her one-night-stand dead.”
I haven’t been this impressed with an indie thriller in a very long time. We say it all the time at Film Threat: a good story will cover up any film’s budget and production shortcomings. The story and the dialogue are the true stars. Now, let’s talk about the plot. Yes, the trio could have just told the police the truth, and Kerri and Brandy would have been exonerated, film over.
But, Once Upon a Time in the District is a thriller, and life has to get complicated, especially considering Mika’s past. Jackson III tells a gripping narrative that grows from simple murder to a blackmail scheme to political corruption. The filmmaker masterfully fills in every plot hole and reasonably justifies them. He finds plausible motivations for why his characters make seemingly the wrong moral choices.
The cast is incredible from the top down. Johnson anchors the entire story as Kerri’s only character who’s pure of heart and full of compassion. For the rest of the cast, Jackson gets the right emotion and tone from them scene after scene.
Once Upon a Time in the District also boasts great dialogue. Two scenes stand out the most. The first is the tense interaction with Mika’s hazy account of the killing. Kerri is talking her “off the ledge” while trying to make sense of the situation. The other shows off Jackson’s use of humor involving a hilarious yet torturous conversation between Teddy and Demond. Teddy tries to negotiate more time to pay Demond back, and Demond insists that Teddy goes on a “field trip” for some “motivation.”
Once Upon a Time in the District is a solid thriller from start to finish. Jackson III has given us a modern urban noir that downright feels fresh and original.
For screening information for Once Upon a Time in the District, visit the 8 Picture House official website. Once Upon a Time in the District is a 2023 Award This! Indie Action/Thriller nominee.
"…haven't been this impressed with an indie thriller in a very long time."