Mar. 04, 2009 - Issue #698: Mind The Gap
Frozen RiverFrozen River
Written & Directed by Courtney Hunt
StarringMmelissa Leo, Misty Upham
With its shots of icebound water, bingo halls, reserves and backwood motels, it’s easy for us up here, north of 40, to see Frozen River as a wanna-be CBC TV movie about our native land.
But Courtney Hunt’s film drives mostly along roads just south of the border, around Massena, NY (45 degrees N). Its acclaim in the US (Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, two Oscar nominations) may have something to do with dramatic tensions—cross-border smuggling, native vs white justice, territorial disputes—that our southern neighbours aren’t too familiar with. But this seemingly small-scale debut (actually shot in Plattsburgh, NY) rolls along on enough strong acting turns, then twists away from a predictable tragic route, snowballing into a mighty little film.
The plot has something of the force of a Raymond Carver story, usually set among hard-scrabbled lives. The pained, worn look of Ray (Melissa Leo) greets us in the opening frames. She lives in a beaten-up old trailer with her two kids, teenaged TJ (Charlie McDermott) and young Ricky, and she’s trying to scrape together enough cash for their new trailer home. But Dad’s skipped out on them and gone back to gambling. Out looking for his car, she finds that it’s been casually repossessed by Lila (Misty Upham), a young widowed Mohawk who lives alone in a trailer home on the reserve. In their clash, Ray and Lila spark up an uneasy partnership as smugglers.
The look of the film is not, perhaps, as visually striking as it could be, with some shots a little too obvious in their intended resonance (especially lingering views of signs, like “High Stakes Bingo”). But if Hunt doesn’t clearly mark out her full potential visually, her screenplay is tight and interesting enough to make her a first-time director to watch out for (the disc’s only extra is a commentary by Hunt and producer Heather Rae).
On Ray and Lila’s Christmas Eve run, the film veers towards too-obviously tragic territory, with some irony as a stocking stuffer, only to get back onto solid but icy ground, leaving us shaken. When the climax comes, Frozen River doesn’t crack from any tragic weight, but slides into a perfect mix of the fateful and fitting, the forsaken and redeemed. And in our plunging economy, the film seems darkly prescient in its portrait of people selling themselves out, selling themselves short and still slipping deeper into debt.
Nothing feels forced here, thanks also to the cast. Leo’s been rightly praised for her role as a tough, morally numbed and narrow-minded but family-driven mother. Yet Upham is nearly as good as a woman whose sullenness is as much self-protection as rightful resentment.
And then, the political rippling out a little from the personal, there are larger issues of abandonment, responsibility, and reconciliation. Differences border each other—differences that aren’t judged or ranked, but simply set side by side. State law is uneasily balanced by native justice. And two children, ignorant of their cultures’ tense stand-offs, swing together on a merry-go-round. V
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