Frozen River, directed by Courtney Hunt

Frozen River, directed by Courtney Hunt

This heartfelt debut film about dodgy decisions prompted by force of circumstance is several cuts above standard American independent cinema fare

Borderline Psycho Sis. Film review – Tom Jennings
Massena, near the St Regis Iroqois reservation straddling upstate New York and Quebec, where state police have little jurisdiction: part-time convenience-store cashier Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) approaches bankrupt breaking-point when the deposit to replace their delapidated trailer with a bigger version to properly accommodate two sons disappears with her compulsive gambler husband. She spots his car driven by local Akwesasne Mohawk Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), follows her to reclaim it, and is drawn into perilous but profitable people-trafficking across the eponymous St Lawrence. Lila has her own family issues – her infant was taken by in-laws after his father drowned in a previous smuggling run – so she’s also stuck in psychic as well as economic suspended animation. Then the compelling monetary logic of motorised ice-skating with contraband bootfuls at a grand a pop precipitates a series of hair-raising dramas bringing the women closer – initial guarded hostility replaced by tentative mutual respect culminating in generosity and sacrifice inextricably intertwining their lives.
Director Courtney Hunt (herself hailing from single-parent hard times in Tennessee) took 14 years to incubate Frozen River, first fashioning a documentary from meticulous research among the area’s populations. The low-budget finished article garnered Grand Jury Sundance prizes and Oscar nominations for her screenwriting and Leo’s monumental performance – Quentin Tarantino (hardly gritty social realism’s biggest fan) calling it “the most exciting thriller” of the year. Meanwhile Reed Dawson Morano’s naturalistic DV captures the austere wintry majesty of an unforgiving landscape, contrasted effectively with the realised script’s equally faithful, if considerably less romantic, bleakness of cold lives eked out there. Hunt’s superb ensemble sketches a pitch-perfect spectrum of everyday impoverishment’s practical and emotional tolls – simultaneously conveying Ray and her family’s caring and recklessness, intelligence and ignorance, obstinacy and passivity, while never appearing contrived or stereotypical.
To achieve this, US Indie cinema cliches are mercifully avoided (apart from a guitar-twanging soundtrack). Instead of patronising the poor as lovably quirky, manipulative plot twists echo the capricious cruelty of fate according to lower-class experience – chiming with our taste for the vulgar generic formulae of thrillers, Westerns or melodramas over depressingly worthy kitchen-sinkery or the exoticising objectification of middle-class charitability. Indigenous takes on trade, criminality and ethics then emphasise the cultural and historical ambiguity of borders, laws and sovereignty – though the narrative skew to a white working-class perspective precluded fleshing out fascinating glimpses of tribal community-council justice. Yet the film’s integrity is such that the authentic, closely-observed characterisations signal potential for otherwise divided, blighted and alienated communites without its proliferating parallels, metaphors and analogies feeling overly pretentious or preposterous. Thus, corresponding to a disappointingly cursory treatment of illegal immigrants destined for chattel slavery to Snakehead gangs, the casual indifference shown to the Asian aliens itself produces a pivotal intersection of desperate parental measures with which the wretched of all the earth could surely empathise.
Review first published in Freedom, Vol. 70, No. 16, August 2009.
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Tom Jennings
Sep 10 2009 14:50


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