A working mom’s efforts to raise cash to buy an upgraded trailer home lead her into a strange netherworld of human smuggling in Courtney Hunt’s solid debut, “Frozen River.” No trendsetter or breakthrough, this is more than anything else a welcome chance for the fine actor Melissa Leo to finally dominate a film in a terrific and affecting lead role. Sony Pictures Classics acquired the pic at Sundance for under $1 million, spelling limited arthouse biz.
Pic reps a throwback to an earlier brand of Sundance indie film that combined personal touches, geographical specificity, feminist references and Native American social realism, though none of these factors are so foregrounded that polemics or even politics matter nearly as much as storytelling.
Depiction of the interaction between working poor whites and natives in the Mohawk reservation area straddling the U.S.-Canadian border on the St. Lawrence River, and the underground transfer of illegals from many countries, makes “Frozen River” both unusually local and global in perspective.
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After her Mohawk-born and gambling-addicted husband Troy runs out on her, Ray (Leo) is left to take care of teen son T.J. (Charlie McDermott) and younger son Ricky (James Reilly) in a run-down trailer home. She can’t make the balloon payment on a new home, and, when she tries to track down Troy at the local bingo parlor, she sees a stranger drive off in his car and gets into a confrontation with her.
Like a set of accidents that begins to feel a bit like intervening fate, Ray learns that this curious Mohawk woman, Lila (Misty Upham), is secretly a smuggler for a ring on the Canadian side of the frozen St. Lawrence run by the threatening Quebecer Jacques Bruno (Mark Boone Junior). Ray at first is manipulated by Lila into doing a run.
Hunt finely balances a subtly staged character study with a tale that grows increasingly tense, so much so that “Frozen River” begins to play like a social-realist thriller. Lila emerges as more sympathetic than she first appears, but Upham’s exquisite perf resists telegraphing emotions or what will happen next.
The movie, though, belongs to Leo, a thesp of considerable flinty character and honesty who brings all of her reserves to bear on a big, complex role. Unafraid to show herself weathered by the cold, harsh elements and never working to make auds love her, Leo builds the kind of perf that invites concentration, and then high respect.
Support by McDermott, as a son releasing all of his frustrations on his mom; Boone (partly in French) as the smuggler, and Michael O’Keefe in a wonderful turn as a state trooper, are aces. Production package and vid lensing under tough conditions is quite fine.