“Popcorn and Tang?”
I love indie debuts that blow me away. The press on Frozen River was across the board praise, especially for underrated character actor Melissa Leo, but I never got the chance to check it out before compiling my top ten of 2008. Now, I don’t think Courtney Hunt’s feature would crack that list, but it gets really close. The story contains so much more than just a tale of two women playing the role of coyotes to bring illegals into the United States via Mohawk territory from Canada. Both Leo’s Ray Eddy and Misty Upham’s Lila Littlewolf are mothers on a mission for survival; both protecting their children above their own safety and comfort. When a smuggling run goes wrong towards the end, you not only see their true worth, but also the humanity they both try so hard to hide behind a steely façade. Finding it necessary to act strong and show no weakness, these women prove that selflessness still exists despite first looks.
Credit Hunt for a beautifully written tale of poverty and against-all-odds sentiments. We are thrust directly into the action, watching Leo’s tear-streaked face as she realizes what has happened. It takes a few minutes more for the audience to comprehend what has transpired, piecing together conversations between her and eldest son T.J. as well as with Mr. Versailles as he takes her new double wide home away in lieu of payment. Leo’s Ray is a woman who has reached her breaking point. She sees the ever-growing ambivalence and frustration in her older son, knowing he can help make money, yet constantly shot down as he must finish school; the youthful exuberance in young son Ricky as the dream of a real home may be taken away, but all he can see is that Santa will make it happen; and the fact that her husband is all but done with their family, seeing their money as a way to extend his gambling habit, not as a future within reach.
While Leo has been lauded over the most, with good reason as she is fantastic, (hopefully this may be her Love Liza, the film that finally gave Oscar-regular Philip Seymour Hoffman his first starring role), but I can’t stop thinking about Upham’s performance. Her Lila is just as integral, if not more to the story at hand. At first appearance she is a disgruntled woman, angry with her people, angry with God, angry with herself. She sees no problem taking an abandoned car from the side of the road and has no moral qualms about bringing illegal immigrants across the border. To her there is no border. The Mohawk territory on either side of the titular frozen river belongs to no nation. Her only real threat in getting caught is to have her money taken away. Unless discovered on American soil, she is technically breaking no laws. A common criminal, drawing Leo into her web so that she has a white woman to cross the US/reservation border, Upham’s Lila is an enigma. Only when we discover the reason behind her smuggling do we understand how similar these two women are. The one big difference between them becomes her belief and unflappable trust in God. She sees miracles and destiny whereas Leo sees coincidence and necessity. The two viewpoints merge together at the end, bonding the two forever—two mothers who will stop at nothing for the children they’d rather lose for short periods of time then see them suffer for the long term.
Besides some wonderfully stark and bleak shots, the film’s real strength lies in the acting. There are some gorgeous frames of the snow on the river, winter in the dark, and the solitude and quiet of their patch of New York State bordering Quebec. Little touches like that of the bike-powered merry-go-round at the Eddy house brings a sense of downtrodden aesthetic. We see the day-to-day grind on the reservation and in the town—at the Bingo hall, the Yankee Dollar, the trailer parks, etc. Nothing makes that world more authentic then those inhabiting it, though. I have to believe most extras were amateurs recruited to be a part of the film. They stay in the background and add a layer to the tale that would be missing if cast by a Hollywood studio with “pretty” people.
A few familiar faces are included as well with Michael O’Keefe’s small role as the State Trooper manning the border and Mark Boone Junior as a menacing French-Canadian fence in the world of human trafficking. It’s Junior’s Jacques Bruno that shows the evil and danger in what they are doing. It’s not all about people trying to do the right thing, but also about money. Besides these two, Charlie McDermott, as T.J., deserves mention too. He shines as the older-than-his-years son, willing to take the mantle of man of the house even if his mother feels he is not yet ready. The aggression and anger brewing inside of him becomes a mask for the scared boy he is, realizing how his father had failed them and how hard it is for his mother. He wants to help and not being able to just makes the frustration mount. It’s a definite departure from his juvenile delinquent role in Sex Drive, one that didn’t ask for much.
The issue of a duffel bag brought over by a couple of Pakistani illegals will soon take over the film and become the most memorable sequence, however, Frozen River isn’t to be remembered by one instance. Yes, that coyote run becomes the defining moment for our two leads, but the rest of the story is so well told that it would have fallen flat as a contrivance if not. What happens as a result of that bag only works in the context of what has come before it. Hunt’s screenplay earns that moment and runs with it until the end. Not every happy ending is necessarily without loss, but hiccups at the start, which allow for a renewal later on, can’t be passed off as defeat. It’s just delayed success, a bright future ahead to hold on to and alleviate the pain of the present.
Frozen River 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½
 Left: Misty Upham as Lila Right: Melissa Leo as Ray Photos by Jory Sutton © 2007 Frozen River Productions, LLC. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.
 Charlie McDermott as TJ Eddy Photos by Jory Sutton © 2007 Frozen River Productions, LLC. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.