Mothers of the World, Unite!
Memphian lawyer-trained writer/director Courtney Hunt’s first feature, Frozen River, arrives four years after her same-name shorter version was shown at the New York Film Festival. With prestigious prizes already under its belt and an Opening Night in March at the Lincoln Center-MoMA New Directors/New Films program, this ninety-seven minutes drew praise from Quentin Tarantino at Sundance. The over-the-top Kill Bill auteur might well take a lesson from the laconic, quietly acted and photographed low-key production.
Completed in little over three weeks on Sony Vericam and little money in a freezing Plattsburgh whose Lake Champlain fills in for the St. Lawrence that divides New York State from Québec, the tale is topical on two fronts. The first involves the acknowledged smuggling of illegals southwards across the border, in dangerous runs coordinated by males but often carried out by women. Related to this is the offshoot question of the desperate straits leading women into the risky task in the first place.
Requirements of a happy ending make for legal resolutions easily overlooked but suspect amid current paranoia, even granted a prefab-trailer town where all know one another to the year and model of cars they drive. Seeking cash for kid brother Ricky’s (James Reilly) Christmas present, high school student T.J./Troy, Jr. (Charlie McDermott), scams and sells credit card information but needs only to say “sorry” to an elderly victim. His abandoned mom Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo reprises her role from Hunt’s short) gets a cigarette and probably only four months when caught and confessing to carrying immigrants across an international boundary.
The place is really two worlds, not countries, since Ray’s accomplice Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham, also from the 2004 version) is no doubt correct that white Ray is freer from, and within, the law. The Akwesane Mohawk Native Americans/First Nations straddle the border, under self-government jurisdiction on tribal lands where they subsist in camper poverty, their sad Territorial High Stakes Bingo a far cry from the glitz of their ethnic kindred’s casinos.
Both women scrape for money as best they can and as opportunity presents itself. And both carry on for the mother in them. Surly Lila refuses to work with whites or get the eyeglasses she needs for a job to which, car-less, she has to walk along the highway. Taking on human consignments for cash to regain her one-year-old (Little Jake, played by Thahnhahténhtha Gilbert) from the boy’s grandmother, she appropriates the Dodge Spirit left by Ray’s scratch-gambling-addict husband when he took the money and “just took off without thinking.”
Unable to secure fulltime work, Ray is desperate to save their rented flatscreen TV -- a constant presence at home -- and, urgently after TJ burns the frozen pipes with his father’s blowtorch, to pay the rest on a dream doublewide mobile home.
By expediency, later through mutual maternal sympathy, these two women are drawn together for the $1,200 per crossing. With one exception, the traffickers to north and south (at the empty Pioneer Motel -- “Sorry. No Vacancies”) are not dwelt on or evil. Circumstance and need ordain their activities, too, though there is no plea that theirs is humanitarian, helping Asians who would otherwise “have to work years to pay off $40-50,000 [to the] ‘snakeheads’” who have shipped them between continents.
One of few films where shots in and from automobiles are effective and integral, whether from wisdom or wallet Frozen River does not stoop to an Eliza-with-baby-Harry jumping from one Ohio floe to another. The border truss Cornwall Bridge out for any trunkful of undocumented aliens, cars drive on the iced river -- “faster, to go up the bank”-- without fake suspense, only a single wheel breaking through. One wishes the same good sense had edited out the sentimental improbable rescue of a Pakistani baby through female eyesight, breath and warmth.
Legal sanctions in order, both white man’s and tribal, bonds nevertheless have been forged that cross ethnic-racial borders and, at least here, erase mutual suspicion. With a subdued wintry palette, the story centers on small people, on economic and emotional trial, on motherhood. Theme and location are out of the ordinary, the treatment is restrained, and the result hard-edged.
(Released by Sony Pictures Classics and rated "R" for some language.)