As Courtney Hunt’s film opens on a lingering shot of the frozen Saint Lawrence river in the wilds of upstate New York, so a chill sets in that permeates the whole of this remarkable human thriller. And it’s not just the sub-zero weather than sends a shiver up the spine, but the length the movie’s protagonist Ray (Melissa Leo) has to go to in order to survive.
Despite earning a pittance as a store clerk in a small town near the Canadian border, Ray has saved up enough money for a deposit on a dream house for her two young sons. But when her gambling-addicted husband runs off with the cash, Ray finds herself a broke single mum who can’t put food on the table. A brief encounter with Lila (Misty Upham), a girl from the local Native American Mohawk community, brings Ray into the illicit world of smuggling. Initially appalled, the prospect of easy money is too great and Ray soon finds herself driving illegal immigrants across the frozen river border. But as the ice begins to melt, and the law catches up with her, Ray realises there may be a big price to pay…
Based on writer/director Hunt’s own observations while visiting family in New York State, Frozen River is a bleak look at the realities of life on the fringes of the American Dream. Despite coming from two very different backgrounds, and seemingly having nothing in common, Ray and Lila are thrown together by the same primal need to better the xlives of themselves and their children. Despite their initial animosity they find a sense of kinship and understanding along the way but, even though it makes full use of its Native American locale, this story is not about the healing of cultural divides. It’s an unflinching, social thriller about the issue of poverty in the United States, an issue that transcends all barriers of class, gender and race to govern the lives of those who live under its terrible condition. And it’s told without a hint of sentimentality or melodrama; Hunt knows to let the desperate facts of the matter speak for themselves.
Frozen River is also about Melissa Leo. Her performance as the bitter, determined Ray is simply outstanding; there is no self-consciousness in her portrayal of a woman ravaged by life and willing to do the unthinkable to survive. It’s a master-class in how to absolutely inhabit a character, and fully deserving of the Oscar nomination it awarded Leo earlier this year. And Misty Upham, as the spiky yet deeply vulnerable Lila, lends exceptional support.
Courtney Hunt’s film may not be the feel-good movie of the year, but it’s certainly one of the most meaningful. Focused, poignant and expertly-crafted, Frozen River asks a great deal of an audience used to tales of triumph against all the odds and happy endings but it’s about as rewarding a viewing experience as you’re likely to find.
Stars Mellisa Leo, Misty Upham, Charlie McDermott
Director & Screenplay Courtney Hunt
Distributor Axiom Films
Running Time 1hr 37mins
Opens July 17