Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo), an upstate New York trailer mum with 5 year old Ricky (James Reilly) and 15 year old, TJ (Charlie McDermott), is lured into the world of illegal immigrant smuggling when she meets Lili (Misty Upham), a Mohawk single mum who lives on a reservation that straddles the US-Canadian border. Broke after her husband takes off, Ray reluctantly teams up with Lila and the two begin making runs across the frozen St. Lawrence River carrying illegal Chinese and Pakistani immigrants in the trunk of Ray's Dodge Spirit.
Review by Louise Keller:
The frozen river of the title of this Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner does more than divide two countries. It is symbolic of danger and risk. It's a story about struggle - for survival and to keep the family unit together. It's also the story about two women, who are very different, but their dire circumstances have thrown them together, making them as desperate as each other. While its themes are large, this independent film is modest as we live, breathe and understand the difficulties the two women face. Writer director Courtney Hunt's debut film is as bleak as its chilly setting, but equally beautiful. We are affected by the sincerity of the story, the heartfelt performances and embrace the decisions taken, as the metaphorical ice begins to crack.
Melissa Leo holds the film together as Ray, whose gambling addicted husband has deserted her and their two boys. In the opening scene, the camera slowly reveals a barefoot Ray sitting alone, smoking a cigarette and weeping. We meet her a little bit at a time, beginning with her tattooed foot and ending on her distraught face, where tears of desperation trickle down her lined, worn features. It is clear that she is at the end of her rope. We then find out why. When Ray meets Misty Upham's Mohawk Lila, the aggression between them is as obvious as the snow is white. But they find they have a mutual need for each other. Lila needs Ray's car with its pop-up trunk and Ray needs Lila's connections to make the money she urgently needs. There's a bridge that both women cross and it involves the treacherous frozen St Lawrence River.
Leo and Upham put a human face on the plight of these two women, as what begins as an impersonal transaction becomes something far more. Upham's performance is understated and special mention goes to Charlie McDermott as 15 year old T.J., who shows his pain, support and frustration in a million ways. Shot in sub-zero temperatures, we can almost feel the cold, making the warmth of the human interaction even more tangible.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Courtney Hunt's exploration of the forces of motherhood in this singular and bleak yet surprisingly affecting film works because it is well written and marvellously performed (earning Oscar nominations in both categories). Hunt sets her story amidst people living on the edge, far from middle class cushions. It is a film made outside the Hollywood system for the cost of a packed lunch, but it packs a punch as a story of human frailty and strength. The frailty comes in the form of the husband and father who abandons Ray (Melissa Leo in a splendid characterisation) and their two kids with the deposit for their new, bigger, better trailer, to feed his gambling addiction. This takes place before the film begins, but it drives Ray's actions, trying to secure her family's survival and future. The bonds of motherhood overcome her reluctance to take risks for money.
Lili, wonderfully played by Misty Upham, has her own motherhood problems, her one year old son having been taken by her ex husband's family. These are the gritty realities that Hunt tackles with confident ease on her debut, ensuring that there is nothing artificial or sentimental in front of the camera. She even manages to avoid the traps of setting the film at Christmas, and her cast delivers seamless performances.
The two women land in difficulties more than once, and there is a moment of extreme tension when a fleeing Pakistani couple bring along a duffle bag, which the women promptly abandon on the ice, only to later learn of its precious contents.
The icy, snowy setting with its unrelenting grey skies and the poverty of the characters would normally become depressing in a film as serious as this one, but instead, the mood is one of brutal honesty about how some people live their lives. It's a haunting work and deserves to be discovered by genuine film fans.
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FROZEN RIVER (MA)
CAST: Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, Michael O'Keefe, Mark Boone Junior, Charlie McDermott, James Reilly, Dylan Carusona
PRODUCER: Chip Hourihan, Heather Rea
DIRECTOR: Courtney Hunt
SCRIPT: Courtney Hunt
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Reed Morano
EDITOR: Kate Williams
MUSIC: Peter Golub, Shahzad Ismaily
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Inbal Weinberg
RUNNING TIME: 97 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Sony
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: February 19, 2009