Written and directed by Courtney Hunt, Frozen River could — if perhaps reset in Spain and helmed by Pedro Almodovar — just as easily be titled Women on the Edge, for it’s a movie all about the struggle of blue-collar, dirty-fingernailed retail moms for whom life doesn’t quite work, and cigarettes are a luxurious escape. A slice of socioeconomically depressed cinema very loosely in the vein of George Washington or Come Early Morning, Hunt’s feature debut is anchored by Best Actress Oscar nominee Melissa Leo’s fiercely prideful, stirring performance, which recommends the title for fans of smart, quiet acting.
Life in Massena, New York, a small border town of 13,000 along on the northern edge of St. Lawrence County, is as harsh and barren as the frigid landscape. In this bleak terrain, two hardened single mothers trying to make a life for their children cross paths in unlikely fashion. Lila (Misty Upham) is a widowed Mohawk whose mother-in-law “stole” her newborn son a year ago. Ray (Leo) is the mother of two boys, 15-year-old T.J. (Charlie McDermott) and little Ricky (James Reilly), whose unreliable, come-and-go, gambling-addicted husband just disappeared with the $1,500 down payment for their new double-wide trailer home. Faced with little opportunity to make ends meet, Ray and Lila embark on an illegal venture transporting immigrants into the U.S. across an iced-over river on Native American reservation territory. With the money for the completion/delivery payment within Ray’s grasp, the women are determined to make one last run. When circumstances spiral out of control, the two women must make life or death decisions based on their love for their children and quasi-friendship.
Hunt fetishizes the worried, working woman’s creases of Leo’s face, and in this regard (smartly? by chance?) lets Leo do a lot of the film’s emotional heavy lifting. Much of the rest of Frozen River is all surface drama, though, which is problematic both because of Upham’s limited professional resumé and the fact that Hunt has trouble crafting dialogue that doesn’t come across like a hammer on a nail. (“I don’t usually work with whites,” says Lila at one point, then, “They won’t stop you — you’re white.” Later, a character literally searches for money in the couch cushions, something I don’t believe I’ve done since I was seven, no matter how desperate to pay the rent.) The inherent dramatic conflict here is all telegraphed, in other words. Some nonverbalized details work much better (Ray’s oldest son spreading burnt popcorn to mask the smell of an accident, for instance), and the movie is both nicely photographed and has an additional pinch of timeliness due to the foreclosure crisis sweeping the nation. But mostly Frozen River, a sort of pencil sketch character flick, runs out of natural mesmeric pull, and coasts on the strength of its steely star — a career supporting actress now reborn as a leading lady.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case, Frozen River comes presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, with an English language Dolby digital 5.1 audio track and optional French subtitles. Somewhat dishearteningly, the sole supplemental bonus feature is an audio commentary track with Hunt and producer Heather Rae. The women speak glowingly of their collaborators, and talk some about the inspiration for the film (some non-fiction articles and research Hunt did), but the track is punctuated by long silences, and would have benefited from a moderator’s presence to help coax out not just more production anecdotes but a grander discussion of the movie’s thematic social content. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. C+ (Movie) C- (Disc)