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FROZEN RIVER(director/writer: Courtney Hunt; cinematographer: Reed Morano; editor: Kate Williams; music: Peter Golub/Shahad Ismaily; cast: Melissa Leo (Ray Eddy), Misty Upham (Lila Littlewolf), Charlie McDermott (T. J.), James Reilly (Ricky), Mark Boone Junior (Jacque Bruno), Michael O’Keefe (Trooper Finnerty), Jay Klaitz (Guy Versailles) , Bernie Littlewolf (John Canoe), Dylan Carusona (Jimmy), Michael Sky (Billy Three Rivers); Runtime: 97; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Heather Rae/Chip Hourihan; Sony Pictures Classics; 2008)
“What makes this film work is the utterly fascinating performance of Melissa Leo.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Written and directed by New York-based filmmaker Courtney Hunt, whose feature film debut is a grim social conscious slice of life indie crime drama that paints a sympathetic portrait of the poor, the illegals, the Native Americans and the oppressed who are vics of the system and due to circumstances somewhat out of their control find themselves engaged in illegal activities to survive. It tells a heartbreaking tale about a struggling new single mother in upstate New York (in the small town of Massena outside the Mohawk Reservation on the border with Quebec), who turns to smuggling illegal immigrants into the United States as a means of making ends meet when she’s abandoned by her deadbeat husband. This emotionally gripping drama was winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Best Dramatic Feature at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. It was filmed at Plattsburgh, N.Y., on Lake Champlain.

Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) is a white woman living in a rundown shack in Massena with her two boys, the scam artist fifteen year old T. J. (Charlie McDermott) and the cute five year old Ricky (James Reilly), and eking out a meager living working part-time in a Yankee Dollar store as a clerk. A few days before the Christmas season Ray’s gambling-addicted husband has secretly skipped town with the family balloon money down payments to a three-bedroom double-wide she promised her two children, and she’s besides herself as she tries to hunt him down at a Mohawk bingo parlor. When a young Mohawk woman she later finds out is named Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham) rides off with Ray’s abandoned Dodge Spirit in the bingo parlor parking lot, Ray follows her to the reservation trailer where she dwells and pulls a gun on her to get back the car keys. Lila says the car was abandoned at the bus station and is now hers. It turns out Lila is a smuggler, working for a dangerous smuggling ring on the Canadian side of the frozen St. Lawrence run by the gun-toting menacing Quebecer Jacques Bruno (Mark Boone Junior). Lila’s part in the ring is to hide either Chinese or Pakistani illegals in the car trunk and cross the frozen St. Lawrence River, and when over the border to take the illegals to one of the motels that’s part of the ring. The desperate single mom, whose children survive on popcorn and Tang and get their entertainment watching cartoons from a Rent-To-Own big-screen TV, first gets manipulated into making a run and then reluctantly agrees to use her car to team up with Lila in the illegal smuggling until she gets her double-wide. Lila’s tribal elders disapprove of her activities and in an attempt to stop her refuse to let her own a car, going as far as to forbid the local auto dealer from selling her one with button-release trunks.

As each crossing becomes more dangerous the two unlikely partners, each a mom with a story of woe, find that their fates become intertwined when Ray on Christmas Eve wants to make one last smuggling run to get enough bread to cover her down payment for the double-wide. But just about everything goes wrong, and the film leaves you feeling sorry for the smugglers who are pushed into thinking that they can’t make enough money working legit jobs to live the way they want to.

Hunt’s film covers the hot-button topics of the day, such as terrorism, homeland security, illegals, single moms, a proper nutritional diet, the underbelly of poverty in America and the touchy relationship of whites to Native Americans (who are not subject to the same laws as the whites when on the reservation, but in town have an uneasy relationship with whites). What makes this film work is the utterly fascinating performance of Melissa Leo, as the vulnerable sad-eyed but resilient tough cookie “white trash” trailer-park inhabitant who is caught in a survival dilemma as things are happening too fast for her to take it all in and make the right decisions–until in the end she does make the right decision without indicating she learned anything from her heavy-going experience.

The film skids along icy waters, uncorking only surface observations about poverty, illegals, consumerism, racism (the state troopers treat the whites and Indians differently) and of the two exhausted impoverished women trying to deal with an uncaring world –nothing we shouldn’t already know. But the two women are sympathetic figures and both allow us to see up close what suffering looks like on a human face through their no-nonsense, intense, authentic and compelling performances.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”