Over the years there’s been much debate about cinema’s unfairness in terms of representing the under-represented. Minority and women filmmakers are few and far between and the poor really can’t afford the time or cost of making films that represent them. For everyone that’s lead the rallying cry or begged the question of where are the under-represented in films, you need not look further than Courtney Hunt’s first feature “Frozen River.”
The film opens on the exhausted, haggard face of Ray Eddy (Leo) as she smokes a cigarette outside in the snow, wearing only her nightgown. Finally the dam of emotion breaks and tears fall from her eyes. We soon discover her gambling addicted husband, and father of their two kids, has taken the entire balloon payment for the families new doublewide and ran off on a gambling binge. Melissa Leo as Ray puts forth a truly amazing performance and writer/director Courtney Hunt has delivered a story so rich, honest and painfully truthful that this film demands to be seen. And that’s no short order as the film has no “big names” attached and small indie films seem to only be popular and accepted when they’re cutesy or quirky. “Frozen River” is neither of those things. It’s tough and cold and gives an inside look at poverty in America. Yet the film is also incredibly compelling and intense and I can’t think of another film that’s this small and powerful.
After her shift at the “Yankee Dollar” store, Ray decides to head over to the local Indian reservation to see if her husband is gambling close to home. She finds his car as it pulls out of the driveway, driven by Native American woman (and local ne’er-do-well) Lila (Upham). Lila is also dirt poor and Ray follows her to her tiny trailer looking for her husband. As it turns out, Lila just kind of borrowed the car when she saw the keys sitting in it. The one quibble I have with the film is what happens next and it’s what really propels the story forward. Lila convinces Ray to head north to Canada and smuggle back some illegal immigrants across a scary, frozen river. Ray for some reason complies and the ladies make a cool $2400.00. Ray is hooked in a new line of work and what choice does she have? Her kids are being forced to eat popcorn and tang for breakfast. I totally get why Ray continues with this dangerous and illegal activity, but the way in which she is lead to do it the first time is iffy at best.
What resonated with me, besides the terrific story and stellar acting, was the fact that the middle class and above just don’t understand why poor people do illegal things and treat each other badly. Do you really think that 45 year old woman jockeying the register at your local gas station wants to be doing that for a living? Do you think the 50 year old guy manning the drive-thru at Taco Bell has several career options? It’s all a vicious cycle where people are forced into poverty (or born into it) and have to do whatever they can to survive. Taking crappy menial jobs, dealing drugs, stealing and so forth are, I feel, survival mechanisms. Do I approve of them or look at poverty as an excuse? Hell no. But when you see such honest portrayals in “Frozen River,” you at least understand a little bit more about how marginalized and cornered many poor Americans are.
Key to this idea is the character of Ray. She’s the everywoman working the menial job at a gas station, dollar store or deli in your neighborhood. The one who sighs and looks put out when you interrupt her on a smoke break to pay for your chips and soda. She has a crappy tattoo on her boob and her nails and hair are filthy. Melissa Leo is beyond convincing in this role and her performance immediately pulls us into this harsh world of a single mother trying to support two kids. Poverty takes it’s toll all around as Ray’s 15 year old son T.J. is forced to be the man of the house and look after his 5 year old brother Ricky. But again, this film isn’t just a down in the dumps examination of the poor. It’s an incredibly tense, thrilling film as well.
Ray and Lila clearly are biting off more than they can chew with each delivery. But the promise of easy money proves too strong to make them stop. As the film grows more and more taught, the challenges and consequences rise to a nerve frazzling conclusion. I really can’t speak highly enough of this film. I hope it finds a life outside of the festival circuit and I look forward to seeing more work from Courtney Hunt and Melissa Leo. Seek out this film!