Talk about your perfect storms! It's the week before Christmas, and Ray Eddy's husband has absconded with the money she was saving for her dream home a double-wide trailer that seems like a mansion to her. She has a part-time job in a convenience store, the salary from which barely keeps her two kids in popcorn and orange drink, which is all they have for food. And that says nothing about her environment. She lives close to a casinoless Mohawk Indian reservation, near the Canadian border in upstate New York, where the snow is perpetual and the temperature always sub-zero.
Your heart sinks when you see the grim and unwelcoming opening shots of Frozen River, a first film by writer-director Courtney Hunt, shot digitally and featuring a cast that is off the thermometer when it comes to name recognition. More indie earnestness and uplift, you guess the kind of picture only Sundance could possibly love. (And Sundance did love it; it won the 2008 Grand Jury Prize for best drama.)
But miracles do happen. And Frozen River is one of them. That's largely but not entirely because Ray is played by Melissa Leo, who's at least a little bit known for her television appearances on Homicide: Life on the Streets. She contrives to look as weather-beaten as her front door and to act tough-minded without being closed-minded. She'd do anything to give her two kids a better, or at least a more hopeful, life. That, as it happens, includes smuggling illegal immigrants from Canada across the eponymous river.
She turns to this line of work when Lila (Misty Upham), an outcast from the Indian reservation, steals her car, which is ideal for smuggling capacious trunk and a dashboard release button, handy for quickly off-loading human cargo should trouble arise. The two women form an uneasy partnership and, of course, bad things do start to haunt them. There are the cops and the border patrol to worry about. Also the dangerous scumbags who run the smuggling ring. And the possibility that the ice on the river might crack under the car's weight.
But they do well for a time. Then, naturally, they don't do so well. There's a suspenseful and near-horrific incident with a smuggled baby. There's an increasingly nosy state patrolman who may possibly have an inarticulate romantic interest in Ray. There's trouble with the Indians over Lila and her illegitimate baby and, of course, over the fact that she is breaking the law. And Ray's sons, both nice kids, are restive and in need of closer supervision. In the end, rough, but not draconian, justice is meted out to Ray, but a thin ray of hope also gleams through the lowering upstate skies.
Possibly the best thing about Frozen River is that the mechanics of its busy plot do not intrude awkwardly on the portrait it offers of harsh, pinched lives. There's an easy reciprocity between Ray's struggles to evade the law and her attempts, say, to give her sons some sort of Christmas a spindly tree, a present or two beneath it.
Courtney Hunt is a spare writer and a very objective director. Her film is all show, no tell. It doesn't whine or speechify or make liberal-minded, quasi-political appeals for relief of its characters' hard lives. She lets us come to care for Ray at our own unforced pace, and Leo plays superbly in that patient vein. There's nothing overtly heroic about her as she plods forward under her burden of her small-scale dreams. She's not cynical, but she's not expecting much, either. She's just knowing and accepting of what fate, good or bad, but never transformative, throws at her. You can see it in her eyes, in her wiry body's alertness to both danger and opportunity. The reserve in Leo's performance, the way it earns our sympathy without asking for it is, is screen acting of the highest order. And her seeming artlessness is reflected, as well, in the rest of the no-name cast's work.
In the end, you feel that Frozen River gives about as truthful a picture of American bleakness as it's possible for a movie to present. It is a movie that asks something of an audience, but it richly rewards our curiously rapt attention.