EmptySundance Film Festival
PARK CITY -- Behind the parties, premieres and swag, the spirit of independent regional filmmaking is alive and well at Sundance in films like "Frozen River." The practice of smuggling illegal aliens across the Mohawk Indian Reservation in Upstate New York is real; the characters are not, but could be. Written and directed by Courtney Hunt, this is no-frills filmmaking delivered with earnestness and honesty. A natural for the festival circuit, and perhaps a limited theatrical run, film should find a welcome home on smart cable outlets.
Capturing the reality of working-class lives in America is always a tricky thing to do on film without being condescending, even unconsciously. But Hunt's touch is true, and the blue-collar environment feels largely authentic. What really sells the film is the go-for-broke performance of Melissa Leo as Ray, a mother of two who is struggling to keep her family together in their rundown trailer.
As the film opens, her ne'er-do-well husband has vanished a week before Christmas after he's gambled away the family's savings. The money was earmarked for a payment on Ray's dream house, a doublewide trailer with a Jacuzzi tub. But now she can hardly make ends meet from her job in a toy store, and dinner for 15-year-old T.J. (Charlie McDermott) and his kid brother Rickey (James Reilly) consists of popcorn and Tang.
At her wit's end, she reluctantly falls into a shady business with Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), a surly part-time smuggler. Initially, the two women don't like or trust each other, which is just how things are between whites and Native Americans in these parts. But Lila has a dream, too; she wants to recover the infant son her mother has taken away from her.
To do the smuggling, Ray and Lila have to deal with some tough customers, and the job itself requires ferrying illegals, mostly Chinese, across the frozen and imposing St. Lawrence River from Canada in the trunk of the car. This is a no-man's, or -woman's, land, a place without borders where anything can happen. The risks are great and the payoff modest, but it's all they have.
Hunt and cinematographer Reed Morano render the trips across the river in the freezing cold with excruciating tension, and these passages form the heart of the film. Not much else happens except the everyday drama of survival. Ray's kids almost burn the trailer down, and the big screen TV is going to be repossessed. When you don't have any money, bad things just mount, and the indignities of daily life seem like a running soap opera.
Inevitably things go from bad to worse, as they always do for poor, desperate people. While transporting a Pakistani couple, Ray and Lila inadvertently leave the couple's infant on the ice and have to go back and retrieve it. The police capture the smugglers, and Ray makes a big sacrifice that reveals the bond between these two beaten-down women. They ultimately have more in common than they thought.
If the range of the story and the action is narrowly focused, Leo's performance gives the film an intensity it wouldn't have without her. She is stripped bare of pretense and vanity, and the close-ups of the lines on her face reveal all the pain, suffering and hope of the character. It's quite an accomplishment. If the film's upbeat ending feels a bit forced, a little uplift is not unwelcome after watching these lives of quiet desperation.
Harwood Hunt Prods. and the Cohen Media Group presentation
Director-screenwriter: Courtney Hunt
Producers: Heather Rae, Chip Hourihan
Executive producers: Charles S. Cohen, Donald A. Harwood
Director of cinematography: Reed Morano
Production designer: Inbal Weinberg
Music: Peter Golub, Shahad Ismaily
Costume designer: Abby O' Sullivan
Editor: Kate Williams
Ray: Melissa Leo
Lila: Misty Upham
T.J.: Charlie McDermott
Trooper Finnerty: Michael O'Keefe
Mark Boone Jr.: Jacque Bruno
Ricky: James Reilly
Guy Versailles: Jay Klaitz
Bernie Littlewolf: John Canoe
Running time -- 97 minutes
No MPAA rating