Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Frozen River

By Elise Nakhnikian

Frozen River is the kind of movie that brings out the Goldilocks in viewers. Some find it too dark. Others think it sold out by giving its hapless characters an improbably happy ending. But for some of us, this gritty indie gets the balance between struggle and hope for the growing army of America’s working poor just right.

Kindness and comfort are in short supply for Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo). Her one indulgence is bubble baths, but she can’t take them in her cramped, rusty tub – and that’s the least of her worries. Her husband, a gambler, ran off with their savings a week before Christmas, leaving her to hold things together for 15-year old TJ (Charlie McDermott) and little Ricky (James Reilly), who’s only about five.

Without that money for the balloon payment, she’s going to lose not only the double-wide trailer of her dreams but the downpayment that was everything they had. She doesn’t even have Christmas presents for the boys, the TV is about to be repossessed, and her callow young boss at the Yankee Dollar store won’t up her part-time hours to full time.

While looking for her husband at a high-stakes bingo parlor run by the local Mohawk nation, she finds his car instead, and that leads her to Lila (Misty Upham), the young woman who stole the car. Both too desperate to give any ground, the two women strike a wary partnership, Ray Eddy agreeing to use her car to help Lila smuggle illegal immigrants across the frozen Lawrence River from Canada.

As the two make the slow, scary drive across the ice, they gradually get to know each other. Depressed and defensive, Lila doesn’t give much away, but she does confess that she needs the cash to take care of her baby, who was taken from her by her mother-in-law after her husband’s car fell through the ice during a run.

The actresses’ eloquent eyes and body language, and cinematographer Reed Morano’s frequent close-ups, stripmine the emotions these women work so hard to bury. We also see how much they have in common, though we’re not sure they’ll get past their initial contempt and mistrust to see it themselves -- and, frankly, I found it a little hard to believe that they'd bond as tightly as they do in the end.

We also feel the dangers they face every time they make a run, from the treachery of the black ice and the bone-chilling cold to the menace of a sleazy strip joint manager who supplies some of their human cargo, who looks like Tom Waits on prednisone.

The movie touches on racial politics, showing us Lila’s resentment of white privilege and her refusal to live by white laws. In her view, since the Mohawk nation extends into the part of Canada where she picks up her cargo, the U.S. border she crosses is irrelevant. “This is free trade between nations,” she tells Ray Eddy.

But that border means everything to the illegal immigrants who stream across it. We don’t learn much about the people Lila and Ray Eddy smuggle in, but what we glimpse of their predicaments makes Lila’s and Ray Eddy’s lives look almost easy in comparison.

The bravest thing the movie does is highlight our lack of mercy for the working poor. Frozen River illustrates the struggle involved in trying to scrape together enough money to fulfill just one dream, when you’re stuck in the grinding cycle of poverty. Mercifully, it also shows the grit, ingenuity, and unquenchable hope that allows women like Ray Eddy and Lila to provide at least the basics for themselves and their children, without which with their lives – and this movie – would be unbearably grim.

This is the first feature for writer-director Courtney Hunt, but she’s no neophyte. Forty-four years old, she has a master’s degree in film from Columbia University, and she sold her 20-minute thesis film to PBS.

Frozen River also started life as a short film. Screened at the 2004 New York Film Festival, it got enough attention to allow Hunt to raise the money (well under a million dollars) for the feature. She wrote the short after learning about the women who drove across the frozen river to smuggle near her husband's family home on New York’s border with Canada. Over the next few years, she spent hours with some of the smugglers and other members of the Mohawk nation before deciding she knew enough to create a credible character and story.

Hunt’s own mother was married at 18 and divorced when Hunt was just three, raising her daughter alone. That’s probably why Hunt gets the details of Ray Eddy’s life so right, from searching the couch cushions for loose change when her kids need lunch money to asking for $2.74 worth of gas – and upping it to $7.74 when she finds a five she didn’t know she had.

The actors all look just right, too. Even Leo, a rawboned beauty who looks good even without makeup, is made to look wrung out, washed-out, and sometimes downright ordinary in her bad haircut and unglamorous clothes.

Leo, who created vivid supporting characters in Homicide: Life on the Street and little-seen indies like 21 Grams and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, is mesmerizing in her long-overdue starring role in a feature. The work she and Upham do here proves that you don’t need to look like a Barbie doll to win a viewer’s heart.

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