Frozen River

“Frozen River.” Courtney Hunt, writer/director. Cohen Media Group, 97 minutes.

“Frozen River” is about an unlikely pair of women smuggling immigrants from Canada to the US, but I promise you it is not a message film and it has no political agenda. It doesn’t make a case for or agains immigration; it doesn’t even make a case for better welfare benefits for poor families. In fact, the final scene seems to argue that the government ought to butt out and let every community govern itself. It’s a film about families, and what some people will do to provide for them.

As the film opens, a broken-hearted Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) realizes that her husband has run off with their savings. Nothing much is said about the missing husband, but an “Easy Does It” sticker pasted on the bumper of his car gives us a clue. All Ray wants is a double-wide trailer with good insulation for the winter. It’s almost Christmas, and she finally had the money to have it delivered. Now she’s going to lose her deposit if she can’t come up with the balance within a week.

While trying to track down her husband at the local Bingo parlor, Ray catches Lila (Misty Upham), stealing Ray’s husband’s car, which he left at the Bingo parlor when he hopped on the bus to Atlantic City. A tough single mother who lives on the Mohawk reservation, Lila needs a car with a button operated trunk to make extra money smuggling immigrants across a frozen expanse of river that marks the border between Canada and the US.

Promising to take her to a man who will buy the car, Lila tricks Ray into making a smuggling run with her. At first Ray is aghast, but after her initial fears calm down, she decides in desperation to continue smuggling until she has enough money to pay for the trailer. The two women experience several harrowing moments during their drops, leading up to their ominous and  inevitable One Last Run.

What makes this film remarkable is how well it takes the viewer into a world we often see but don’t acknowledge. Everything about it is naturalistic, from the mismatched wardrobe to the unadorned sets to the unself-conscious acting. We are drawn in by the strength and determination of these women whom we might describe as weak and inconsequential if we met them on the street.

Melissa Leo’s Ray is worn out but determined. Her wiry figure and weathered face, now etched with worry and weariness, belie a long-ago beauty. She has a part-time job at the Dollar Store, but the full time position she was promised has been given to a younger and cuter sales clerk. She’s a conscientious mother, determined to keep her boys in school and out of trouble. She doesn’t want much—just a trailer with insulation—and she doesn’t ask for handouts—her kids don’t even seem to take advantage of the free lunch program at school. (Ray searches the couch cushions for lunch money every morning.) We see people like Ray every day, but do we bother to know them?

Meanwhile, Ray’s teenage son T.J. (Charlie McDermott) is experiencing desperation of his own. With his father gone on a gambling junket, he has to step up and be the man of the house. He wants enough money to stop eating popcorn and Tang for dinner, and he wants to buy his little brother a Hot Wheels set for Christmas. Is that so much to ask? His mother won’t let him get a job to supplement the family income, so he turns to a job outside the legal sector—stealing a credit card number and selling it to a classmate. The juxtaposition of mother and son as they reluctantly enter a life of crime is touching and heartbreaking.

Lila, too, is motivated by good intentions. Her young son has been taken away from her by his paternal grandmother, and she needs to earn enough money to provide a decent home for him in order to get him back. Lila is caught between these two generations, an adult because she is a mother, but still a kid like T.J. by age, with a tribal community trying to keep her out of trouble. Upham plays her perfectly, capturing the bravado of youth and the despair of lost opportunity, a girl forced by circumstances to act like a grown up. She pretends she doesn’t care and isn’t afraid, but we can see past the facade.

None of these characters wants to take advantage of others or break the law. Each is willing to work, and work hard. But there isn’t enough money at the Dollar Store, or the Bingo parlor, or after school shoveling snow, to provide even the basic standard of living that you and I take for granted. “Frozen River” captures the bleakness of a landscape in which no matter how hard you try, you can’t get ahead. Still, you can’t stop trying, and it’s the indefatigable spirit of these three main characters that makes this such a powerful film.

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