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‘Frozen River’ is a gripping slice of life

It's a small movie with hugely moving performances, one with a vivid sense of place that’s never pretentious in its indie aesthetic
/ Source: The Associated Press

When the two women first cross the river together — in the dead of winter, in a rickety Dodge Spirit — Melissa Leo’s character, Ray, says what the audience is thinking: “This is so ... stupid.”

Well yes, it is, considering that each time she and Misty Upham’s Lila drive across the rugged, icy expanse that separates Quebec and the Mohawk Indian Reservation of upstate New York, they have illegal immigrants stowed in the trunk — men and women from China and Pakistan willing to take this risk themselves for the possibility of a better life.

It’s a miracle Ray and Lila make it from one side to the other once much less several times without getting caught or, worse, falling through the precarious surface to their deaths. But then, “Frozen River” is a bit of a miracle itself: a small movie with hugely moving performances, one with a vivid sense of place that’s never pretentious in its indie aesthetic.

“Frozen River” is so quiet and precise and self-assured, you’d never know it’s the feature debut of writer-director Courtney Hunt. Here, she’s come up with that rare thing: a film that feels completely original.

Much of its allure originates from the natural, understated work of its actors, namely Leo, long known for her excellent character and supporting roles on TV’s “Homicide: Life on the Streets” and in such films as “21 Grams.” In her hands, the raven-haired Ray is never a caricature of a desperate mom, struggling to support her two kids alone once her no-good husband takes off just before Christmas. She makes us feel like we’re watching a real person, her acting seems so effortless.

Ray works as a cashier at the local dollar store and is trying to save enough money for the down payment on a new doublewide trailer, which would be a huge step up from the cramped quarters she currently shares with her two sons, 15-year-old T.J. (Charlie McDermott) and 5-year-old Ricky (James Reilly). Each day is a fresh slog, with little to put on the dinner table at night besides popcorn and Tang. And this being December, there’s the perpetual threat that the pipes in the trailer might freeze. (In case you couldn’t tell, Hunt doesn’t skimp on the downer details.)

Only when Ray catches Lila trying to steal her car from the parking lot outside the bingo parlor does her luck look like it might change. Lila, a Mohawk, is a smuggler — first cigarettes, now people — and she recruits Ray to help her ferry her illegal cargo across the river between Canada and the reservation. It’s a segment that border patrol agents can’t monitor because it’s technically Mohawk territory, which Hunt depicts it with flat, hard light and blinding reflections off the jagged snow banks.

The two form an unlikely and uneasy alliance — “I don’t usually work with whites,” Lila says in her typical clipped sullenness — but the money is good, and both women need it. Both are also survivors, which gives them strength and makes them dangerous. They’re not afraid of much, not the trooper parked at the edge of the road each time they return to the United States, and certainly not the creepy supplier who arranges the shipments (Steve Buscemi regular Mark Boone Junior, over-the-top as a French-Canadian thug).

But Hunt makes plenty of room in her script to reveal the softer side of Ray and Lila, to shed some unexpected light on their motivation. She also wraps up “Frozen River” with one of the loveliest endings you’ll see in a while — one that offers just the right glimmer of hope without eroding the film’s bracing sense of realism.