"Frozen River" (2008) -- feature film debut of writer/director Courtney Hunt -- is a very compelling, suspenseful drama, which hinges on a very specific locale, but the theme has global resonance. Watching this movie is like gazing at the torment in a single woman's eyes. This is a heartbreaking look inside and what the poorest of American families had to face to get by. It is also a tale of friendship between two different women, whose lives cross under the most risky and peculiar circumstances.
Frozen River is set in the northernmost New York State, in a town called Massena alongside the Canadian border. Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) lives in a broken-down trailer in the town frozen town, Massena. Ray works part-time at a dollar store and has to support her 15-year-old son TJ (Charlie McDermott), who is seething with rancor, and 5 year old Ricky (James Reilly), who expects Santa to bring presents, this Christmas. Ray's gambling-addicted husband Troy has not only run off but taken the money that was supposed to go toward a down payment on a double-wide trailer -- her long-held dream.
Ray's search for her husband leads to Lila (Misty Upham). She is a member of the Mohawk Nation and drives off in Troy's car. Ray gets into a confrontation with her. Lila is a stone-faced woman, who is secretly smuggling illegals (the illegal residents come from various countries including China and Pakistan) over the Canadian side, which is run by the threatening Quebecer Jacques Bruno (Mark Boone Junior). Lila has plenty of troubles: her husband is dead; mother-in law has stolen her 1-year old child; she has poor eyesight, which prevents her from accurately counting money, among other things.
The illegal immigrants are smuggled through an unguarded segment of the U.S. - Canadian border. That segment is, in fact, a frozen river, where the ice is thick enough to drive across. Lila desperately needs a driver and Ray enters into a distrustful partnership with her. The poor single moms collaborate out of necessity, which takes us through the politics of race, gender and class.
Courtney Hunt (written and directed the movie from her own short film) takes the issue of troubled single motherhood and using a backdrop of flat gray skies convey its characters' inward desolation. As an atmospheric movie, the director keeps it tightly focused, replete with small but weighty details. She also balances the character study and grows the story to play like a tense social-realist thriller. The script takes us to different, unanticipated directions. The subplot involving a Pakistani couple smuggling their frozen baby in a shopping bag grapples us with some thorny questions.
Melissa Leo, a long time supporting actress ("Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada", "The Fighter". "21 Grams") gives an astounding performance with a unique no-nonsense weariness for the character. The cinematography, which has its share of close-ups turns an uncompromising light on Leo's haunted visage. The middle-aged woman's face itself tells a story of its own. Upham's performance as Lila resists revealing emotions or what will happen next. She peels back layers of hostility from the character until nothing's left but what she needs to do.
The American dream of Ray isn't greedy (she just needs a “double wide” trailer barely distinguishable from a cargo container). Her dilemma in doing a risking job can reverberate with anxieties people all over can relate to. Ray and Lila eventually depict the strength and evolution of a family under the rapidly changing socio-economic conditions.
"Frozen River" is a bracingly effective American Indie movie, which finds suspense and beauty in broken lives that are hanging in the balance.
Frozen River -- IMDb