Out there in la-la land, execs live and breathe on the belief that successful movies can be built from a hefty budget and precise marketing techniques. But writer/director Courtney Hunt’s first feature, Frozen River, cost less than $1 million and won’t be heralded on giant billboards. And you probably won’t see a pop-up ad touting the film’s numerous awards (including Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize). But Frozen River shows that the real life-blood of moviemaking is simple: a good story, told well.
During America’s current economic slump, everyone’s struggling. Families who used to worry about getting organic produce and grass-fed meat now buy whatever’s on sale. But for others, families who’ve spent a lifetime on the edge of poverty, it’s just another day in the perpetual cycle of scraping by. That’s the situation Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) faces. Not long before Christmas in upstate New York, Ray’s gambling husband skips town with the payment for their new double-wide trailer – essentially, all the money they had. Her job as a dollar-store cashier won’t help her make the money back before she loses her deposit on the family’s dream-home, so Ray teams up with Lila Littlefoot (Misty Upham), a resident of the Mohawk Indian Reservation, who smuggles illegal immigrants across the frozen St. Lawrence River from Canada into the U.S. Though Ray hesitates, she knows that her two sons can’t survive on popcorn and tang forever. Desperation doesn’t allow for moral waffling.
While she’s smuggling, Ray’s teenage son T.J. (Charlie McDermott), parents his younger brother Ricky (James Reilly) with surprising sensitivity. It seems like things might just turn around for the Eddys, until police trap Lila and Ray mid-run. The women take refuge on the reservation, but someone has to face the consequences. Although we may pity Ray’s situation, she isn’t a completely sympathetic character. She’s a woman who carries a gun (and uses it), smokes cigarettes while she applies her mascara, and suggests that a Pakistani couple might be involved with terrorism. But Leo understands Ray’s hierarchy of concerns and plays her with a sense of justified stringency. If we doubt that we’d engage in such risky behavior, Leo's acting convinces us that, given Ray’s circumstances, we would.
Hunt approaches the story with straightforward simplicity. Lila, who is trying to regain custody of her one-year-old son, and Ray have more in common than they might initially realize, but they don’t sip tea and have long heart-to-hearts. Even during heated exchanges, it all comes down to business, money, and individual needs. And the characters’ emotional honesty comes not only from what they say, but also from the vulnerability we see in their faces. We see every crag in Ray’s face and her yellow, smoke-stained teeth.
Despite their hardened focus, Hunt has written two deeply engaging characters. And what’s more, she has given them a complex world in which to live. In a March, 2008 interview with New York Magazine, Hunt explains that she spent a decade researching Mohawk life in order to give her writing credibility. That diligence shows, not only in Lila and her community, but in every detail of the film. Indeed, supporting roles are also written with care -- particularly T.J., who straddles the difficulty and pride of being man of the house -- while Reed Morano’s cinematography matches the script’s stark tone and the bone-chilling cruelty of Northeastern winters.
As all artists know, a lack of resources often stimulates vigorous creativity. The performances move with a vibrant urgency that may be attributed to the compressed filming schedule, a scant 24 days. Upham is direct and clever, an actor who speaks with her body and her silence, while McDermott plays T.J. with sophistication, finding just the right moments to reveal fear or fortitude. And that’s Hunt’s forté. She gets us to empathize with characters who are flawed and complicated. Instead of judging their choices, we wonder how we would survive in their situation, and it’s not often that a film elicits compassion and forgiveness without sentimental manipulation. But Frozen River does just that.