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  • 15
  • Crime, Drama
  • 2008
  • 97 mins

Frozen River

Frozen River


Writer/director Courtney Hunt's feature debut is a winter's tale of abandoned mothers, social exclusion, and cross-border smuggling


"There's no border here", myopic native Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham) tells harried mother Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo), "this is free trade between nations."

With this casuistic appeal to her tribal rights, Lila is seeking to justify what is plainly a criminal act - the transport of illegal immigrants from Canada to the US over the frozen St Lawrence River (through the separate jurisdiction of the Mohawk reservation). In another sense, however, Courtney Hunt's Frozen River concerns itself precisely with breaking down borders. Here the lines that divide native from migrant, individual from community and acts of desperation from out-and-out criminality may look solid, but deep-down they are as fragile and fluid as the icy waters from which the film takes its title.

In the New York State town of Massena, on the border of Canada, Ray is a woman in trouble. With the approach of Christmas, Ray's husband, a compulsive gambler, has abandoned her and their two sons (Charlie McDermott, James Reilly), taking with him the money that Ray has painstakingly saved to buy their double-wide dreamhouse. Broke, in debt and at risk of losing everything she has worked for over the years, Ray goes looking for her husband at the bingo hall on the nearby reservation and instead finds Lila, who draws her into a people-smuggling plan that promises to yield easy money.

Given Ray's casual suspicion of all foreigners, Lila's open contempt for all whites and the fact that the two meet only because Lila has appropriated a car belonging to Ray's husband, the relationship between these women is frosty from the start. The unwritten rules of genre, however, demand that odd couples must eventually bond, and so it is that Ray and Lila find common ground in their lost husbands, fractured maternity and economic straits, until they discover a mutual respect and even friendship for one another.

What is new here is the understated way that this thawing in relations is portrayed. Leo brings a lived-in reality to her marginalised character that comes not just from wearing no make-up but also from decades of experience playing bit parts on the big and small screens. Upham, on the other hand, offers an insulated, somewhat inscrutable performance that suggests a lifetime of defensive posturing. The relationship that evolves between them is rooted less in banter or high-fiving girlfriend-liness than in a gradual recognition of the helpless exclusion that is their shared lot.

Hunt's feature debut has been feted on the festival circuit for its downbeat realism, so voguish in these recessionary times, although, if we're honest, such realism has much to do with film's milieu of social deprivation (movies about the affluent classes are rarely labelled 'realist'), and very little to do with the undeniably melodramatic artifices of its plot - all baby rescues, Christmas miracles, minor redemptions and race reconciliations. Writer-director Hunt proves adept at interweaving themes of feminine solidarity with thriller elements, and she even exploits some post-9/11 paranoia to generate unexpected tension. But, more than anything else, it is the quality of the acting that drives Frozen River along and keeps it afloat. These are performances that truly know no borders.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Melissa Leo, Mark Boone Junior, James Reilly, Michael Sky, Misty Upham, Dylan Carusona, Michael O'Keefe, Jay Klaitz, Charlie McDermott, John Canoe
  • Director: Courtney Hunt
  • Screen Writer: Courtney Hunt
  • Producer: Heather Rae, Chip Hourihan
  • Photographer: Reed Dawson Morano
  • Composer: Peter Golub

In a nutshell

It is more conventionally melodramatic than its realist postures might at first suggest, but in the end Frozen River is kept from sinking into icy oblivion by the brittle strength of its central performances.

by Anton Bitel

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