I admit I approached Courtney Hunt’s debut feature, Frozen River, with something close to zero interest. No matter how well done or well intended, the story of desperate mothers smuggling illegal aliens across the frozen river of the title to better the lives of their families just didn’t have any immediate appeal to me. Call it shallowness on my part. Call it a built-in skepticism of the use of melodrama to make a profound statement on behalf of the impoverished. Call it what you will. Regardless, I was surprised to find the film considerably more involving than its premise suggested. Even so, this is one of those worthy movies that is a lot easier to admire than like.
Part of the admiration for a film like this lies in the fact that it got made at all—and there are certainly signs that it very nearly didn’t. The lighting is often rudimentary, and the production values are all but nonexistent. Both of these, however, can be viewed as enhancing the film’s sense of realism. On the other hand, the frequent glimpses of a TV on which nothing but faded, battered copies of old public-domain cartoons play are too obviously an economy measure of the filmmaking process, not the characters’ lives. It might add to the grubbiness of the enterprise, but it distracts from the story being told—and the story doesn’t need that because its kitchen-sink realism is already compromised by the situational melodrama of its underpinnings.
For a movie that wants to offer a slice of life, the story line is nothing but brazen melodrama of the “who’ll pay the rent?” school that was all the rage in about 1870. Melissa Leo (Righteous Kill) stars as Ray, a singularly bedraggled mother of two boys, 5-year-old Ricky (James Reilly) and 15-year-old T.J. (Charlie McDermott, The Village). Melissa’s never-seen gambling-addict husband has vanished (presumably to Atlantic City) with the balloon payment for the family’s new double-wide dream home. And all this happens just before Christmas, too. Her efforts to find her errant husband lead her to a bingo parlor on the nearby Mohawk reservation where she finds a young Mohawk woman, Lila (Misty Upham), making off with her husband’s car.
When Ray catches up with Lila she falls in with a plan to use the car to drive across the frozen St. Lawrence River and bring back a couple of illegal immigrants in the trunk—for money, of course. With Ray—a white woman—driving, the chances of being stopped on the way out of the reservation are diminished to almost nothing. Things don’t go smoothly between the two women, but an uneasy partnership develops. Ray comes to see this as a way to save her family’s new homestead, while Lila sees it as a chance to help provide for her own child, who was taken from her by her mother-in-law.
The story on its own isn’t sufficient for a feature-length film. Hunt makes up for this with a suspicious state trooper (Michael O’Keefe, Michael Clayton), an overdue payment on the family TV, Ray’s inability to get full-time employment at the Yankee Dollar Store, a painfully set-up bit where T.J. nearly burns down the family’s current trailer and an even more painfully set-up scene involving leaving a Pakistani woman’s duffel bag in the middle of the frozen St. Lawrence (whatever could be in it?). That no one ever gets chased across ice floes is downright remarkable. More remarkable still is the fact that all this works pretty well as drama, which is a testament to Hunt’s skills as a filmmaker.
What works about Hunt’s approach is simply that the two main characters feel real even when the situations themselves feel like shameless contrivances. So much between Ray and Lila goes unspoken, suggesting a depth of characterization that may not even be there. There’s nothing expository about the approach. Anything learned about the two is picked up along the way, and direct answers are as terse as they are rare. In fact, the two don’t seem to be acting at all, but inhabiting their roles, which makes what happens to them compelling. I’d be lying if I said I found all this as moving as others apparently have. I didn’t. I was never touched by the plight of the characters, but I was interested in what happened to them, which is a lot more than I expected from the movie. If you’d like to see it for yourself, hurry, because by Friday it’ll be gone. Rated R for some language.