In a year starved for indie film, it’s practically a treat to rest your eyes on a simple, unassuming drama like Frozen River. No exploding Gotham streets, no death-defying Jeep chases through South American jungles. Just low-budget, minor-key character drama in a decidedly unexotic locale.
The film takes place in what is basically the polar opposite (literally) of El Paso/Juarez. It’s set in a grubby, snow-clogged border town between New York and the Canadian province of Quebec. Our tour guide here is Ray Eddy (prolific actress Melissa Leo whose longest tour of duty came with “Homicide: Life on the Street”). Ray’s sitting on the wrong side of 40, living in a trailer with her two sons, working part-time at a dollar store and lamenting the timing of her gambling-addicted husband, who’s stolen the family nest egg and run off two weeks before Christmas.
Ray’s dreams are heartbreakingly humble. She just needs the down payment to move her and her sons into a long-promised doublewide trailer. (Now that’s what you call upwardly mobile.) But with Christmas looming and hubby AWOL, the dream is slipping away. One day, she crosses paths with Lila (Misty Upham, Skins), a surly gal from the nearby Mohawk Indian reservation who has “acquired” Ray’s husband’s car after it was abandoned at a local bus station. Under the pretense of helping sell the vehicle to a friend, Lila tricks Ray into sneaking across the border. In Canada, the car’s trunk gets packed with illegal aliens and the ladies slip back across the border at the reservation, where Border Patrol agents can’t venture.
This sudden, unexpected foray into human smuggling nets an easy $2,400. Not surprisingly, it isn’t long before practical-minded Ray hunts down Lila again, offering the use of her car and the easy camouflage of a white face.
Although the film’s central plot revolves around unlawful activity, it’s less of a crime story and more of a look at the lives of two desperate women. In time, we learn Lila’s story, and see why she’s stuck in the world of “snakeheads” (the northern version of “coyotes”—people who smuggle illegals across the border and make them pay off their debt through forced labor). First-time writer-director Courtney Hunt has crafted a gritty, hardscrabble portrait of life on the edge. The script is earnest, the actors are emotionally committed and the director is obviously deeply concerned with social issues. But, for all it’s lonely, cloud-covered mood-setting, Frozen River never pushes its characters close enough to that edge. There are a handful of tense, “uh oh” moments, but Hunt is too reserved a filmmaker to pull the trigger. There’s something to be said for resisting the explosions and car chases of mainstream Hollywood, but there’s something else to be said about giving your characters some serious drama to deal with.
Still, if you can adjust your perspective away from the glitzy, Scarface-inspired crime dramas of Hollywood; if you can downgrade your ambitions to jibe with those of a couple of working, single mothers struggling to keep the Sword of Damocles from above their heads, then Frozen River provides a subtle, plaintive and quietly engrossing portrait of female bonding.
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