One morning in Massena, New York, Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo, TV's "Homicide: Life on the Streets," "21 Grams") awakens to discover that her husband has taken the cash for her final payment on a new double wide trailer to feed his gambling addiction, probably in Atlantic City. It's a week before Christmas and Ray's got two boys to feed with only a part time job at the Yankee Dollar. When she catches Native American Lila (Misty Upham, "Skins') trying to steal her husband's car, little does she know she's about to become a smuggler of illegal aliens across the "Frozen River."
This 2008 Sundance Grand Jury prize winner is a feature debut for writer/director Courtney Hunt and it's the type of regional independent filmmaking that Sundance used to specialize back in the good old days. Steeped in place, a U.S. Canadian border crossing at the Mohawk reservation in upstate New York, and featuring a stunning performance from Melissa Leo that is devoid of vanity, "Frozen River" represents the very best of American filmmaking.
When we first meet Ray, she's sitting slumped in her car, door open, bare (tattooed) feet in the snow, wearing a drab pink robe, smoking a cigarette held in a rough hand with chipped nail polish. The camera cuts to an open glove box, then notes the tears smearing Ray's lined, weary face. In seconds we know that this is a woman who has had a hard life. She also has love, as can be seen in the joy in her face as she speaks to her five year-old Ricky (James Reilly), and the care and concern and maturity with which she treats fifteen year-old T.J. (Charlie McDermott, "The Ten"). He resents how quickly she last came down on his dad and is concerned about the potential repossession of their rented TV, but we can tell he's a good kid holding more responsibility than most.
When she finds her husband's Green Spirit in the parking lot of the local bingo hall, she tries to gain access to see if he is there and we get our first taste of tension between the Mohawk tribe and the Whites who coexist in this desolate place. Denied access to even the door without paying an entry fee she does not have, Ray heads out only to see a woman jump into the Spirit and take off. She follows and ends up shooting through the door of a detached camper trailer to get Lila to produce the car's keys. Unable to tow the car with the rope she has, Ray promises to come back later. When she does, Lila tells her she knows someone who will buy the car for more than it's worth and Ray, seeing her double wide before her eyes, is lured not only onto reservation lands but across the frozen river into Canada. Lila has duped her into picking up two Chinese from her contact Jimmy (Dylan Carusona). Ray initially wants nothing to do with the scheme, but she's in a tight corner. Nervously, she heads back, making it past the state trooper (Michael O'Keefe, "Michael Clayton") Lila's convinced would never stop a white driver.
Drawn back by the easy money (and the face that Lila kept her share to repair her trailer), a tentative partnership is born, although Ray insists she's out the minute she has enough money. A simple conversation maker - 'got any kids?' - produces a sad story from the taciturn Lila that makes Ray realize motherhood and scratching out a living give them more in common than she would have thought. Hunt brings the two women together even as they take separate stances on one Christmas-themed trip, then shifts her tale into overdrive for its final act, the classic 'one last gig' that goes horribly wrong.
Hunt's story is unsentimental, the women not considering the fates of their baggage until the very end, and yet at its core is the theme of motherhood and sacrifice, exemplified by Ray's final decision on how to get out of a bad situation. It is a bracing work in which we can identify with an essentially good woman doing something very morally wrong in order to achieve her version of the American dream. She's reflected in her son, T.J. (McDermott, very natural), who keeps expressing a desire to help the family finances (Ray says taking care of Ricky is more important) and act like dad in his absence (he's warned never to use a blowtorch when Ray isn't home and you know he will, but it doesn't play out exactly the way we expect it to). He's shocked when he discovers what his mother has been doing and yet his crimes, which net little bro's Christmas present when Ray doesn't come through, also don't consider their victims. It's to Hunt's credit that we believe both Ray and T.J. won't be crossing the law ever again even if they had to be caught to stop.
Leo will be a strong contender for a 2008 Best Actress nomination, but Hunt, who won the writer/director award at the Nantucket Film Festival, shouldn't be forgotten. This is a fresh story with a tough yet female point of view and she's brought it to the screen with assurance. In the hipper-than-thou bleakness that has befallen much of American independent filmmaking, "Frozen River" is a breath of fresh air.
Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) is in dire straights. It is just two days before Christmas and her husband has run out on her and their kids and taken the family’s meager savings. Desperate, she turns to a connected Mohawk, Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), and begins a life of crime smuggling illegal immigrants across the Frozen River.”
First time writer/director Courtney Hunt makes a terrific debut with her chill tale (both metaphorically and literally) of a struggle to survive. Ray has never been dealt a good hand in life and the cards have just gotten worse. She is so far down she can only feed her two boys, 14-year old T.J. (Charlie McDermott) and age 5 Ricky (James Reilly), nutritionally incorrect popcorn and Tang. Because of her husband, Troy’s, departure, she may lose the deposit on her dream home a new, doublewide trailer and the chance to turn her life around.
While little Ricky dreams of getting a Hot Wheels crash and bash toy for Christmas, a fact that only T.J. notices, Ray scrabbles to pull something out of the ashes of disaster that have befallen the single mom. She spots Troy’s Dodge Spirit pulling out of a high stakes Bingo parlor and takes chase. But, it is not her ex driving the car. It is a woman from the nearby Mohawk reservation that spans the border to Canada. Lila tells Ray that she found the car abandoned and took it. Troy, it seems, was seen boarding a bus to Atlantic City.
Lila is an outsider to her own people and is known to the tribal police as a smuggler of illegals into the US via the non-patrolled reservation. She makes a deal with Ray that could earn the desperate mom hundreds of dollars. Blinded by the thought of so much much-needed cash, Ray agrees, but is shocked to find out she is muling illicit immigrants. The first time in crime is the hardest, they say, but, once she savors the fruit of her ill-gotten gains (like making the payment on their about-to-be repossessed TV), Ray gets greedy.
Scripter Hunt weaves an intriguing tale of a side of life I would not wish on anyone. It helps, of course, to have a brilliant performance by Melissa Leo. Ray should be down for the count in life but her will to survive and take care of her sons is palpable. Unfortunately, her decision to walk the wild side proves to be her (hopeful, in the end) downfall. Misty Upham, as Lila, is more wooden in her perf but is still a good foil for Ray. Previously unknown to me Charlie McDermott, as elder son T.J., gives a strong, grounded performance as the concerned teen who is trying his best to be the man of the house.
Techs are good, especially the stark, coldly hued, cinematography by Reed Morano. The production conveys the harsh life that is Ray’s and, especially, Lila’s, who lives in a remote, tiny camper trailer.
While “Frozen River” is a relentlessly dark and brooding tale, there is hopefulness of redemption that makes you feel that everything is going to be all right. I don’t do this often, especially for a freshman filmmaker, but I give it an A-.
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