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Frozen River

This Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner is a compelling low-budget drama that offers fine acting opportunities to veteran Melissa Leo and newcomer Misty Upham.


Set against the world of illegal immigrants regularly smuggled across the frozen river bordering a Mohawk Indian reservation between Canada and the United States, Frozen River focuses on the pre-Christmas plight of a New York trailer mom. Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) finds the only way to survive financially is to get involved in the dangerous world of border smuggling after her no-good husband takes off with their savings, and she is left with no means to bring up the kids, T. J. (Charlie McDermott) and Ricky (James Reilly). Teaming up with a younger Mohawk Indian, Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), the two start making numerous trips across frozen St. Lawrence River, hiding illegal Chinese and Pakistani immigrants in Ray's car trunk. Racial tension builds between the two, but the alliance goes forward as Lila is determined to make enough money to get back the baby boy she feels her mother-in-law stole from her--that is, until a final, fateful run affects the lives of everyone involved.


A longtime character actress best know for her role as Detective Kay Howard on Homicide: Life on the Streets, Melissa Leo finally gets a leading film role worthy of her talents as she immerses herself in a startling portrait of a single mom whose sense of desperation leads her into illegal activity. Right from the film's first shot as the camera pans Leo's haggard cigarette-smoking Ray Eddy, we feel we know this woman--that we've passed her by many times on the street and just kept walking. What easily could have been the usual stereotype of so-called "trailer trash" is turned by the gifted Leo into a three-dimensional portrait of a mother just trying to hang on. Upham also eschews stereotypical casting with her determined interpretation of the reluctant smuggler, who places her goal of getting her baby back against any antipathy toward her partner or the dangers of her quick fix money-making enterprise. Considering she was brought up in Seattle and is not Mohawk herself, Upham's work here is uncommonly authentic. The rest of the cast, including Michael O'Keefe as a State Trooper and Dylan Carusona as the Mohawk dealer, have relatively little to do, but McDermottt stands out as the 15 year-old son who must learn to be a man quickly.


Frozen River is a remarkably assured feature film debut for writer/director Courtney Hunt, who has worked many years to bring her vision to the screen. Her self-confidence behind a camera comes through in every frame, and the film actually ends up playing more like a suspense thriller with heightened tension played out in every run these women make across the perilous river. Shooting many scenes in the cramped confines of Ray's Dodge Spirit in sub-zero location temperatures, Hunt's clever, non-static camera movements and command of the story constantly keeps us engrossed in the plight of these two very disparate women. Perhaps the fact she first made Frozen River as a short with the same two leads made it easier to slip in control of a full-length feature version. Whatever the reason, this is a writing/directing talent to watch--and Frozen River is a movie not to be missed.

Bottom Line rated this film 3 stars.