I don’t have kids, but when I do, I plan on doing everything in my power to raise them in a comfortable and caring environment. In Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River, two struggling mothers are put to the ultimate test when forced to answer the question, “How far will you go for your children?”
The film follows Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo), mother of TJ and Ricky (15 and 5) whose father has taken the family’s hard earned money and gone to gamble it away, a week before Christmas no less. Ray’s job at Yankee Dollar doesn’t pay much, but she’d saved up enough to make a down payment on a new double-wide, which was to replace their old and tattered trailer. With little hope of ever seeing the money or her husband again, Ray holds strong in front of the kids, but when they’re not around she weeps in anguish. Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham) suffers from a different sorrow. She’s a Mohawk living on the reservation, and even though her Mother In-Law literally stole her one year-old baby from his crib, the Tribal Police refuse to get involved.
Drawn to each other initially by Lila stealing the Dodge Spirit that Ray’s husband deserted at the bus station, the two women realize they have more in common than their white and Mohawk backgrounds suggest. Both mothers have a fierce love for their children and if it came to it, they’d do anything, even something illegal, to make their kids happy. Thus, Ray and Lila engage in a smuggling operation which Lila is familiar with, and, because of her Mohawk status, they have border-free access to both Canada and the U.S. via the frozen St. Lawrence River that runs through the reservation. Without giving second thought to social or moral laws, the two women cross the river fearlessly, quite simply because they have no other choice.
Right from the opening shot of a broken down Ray having a cigarette and fighting back tears, Frozen River is Melissa Leo’s movie. She completely inhabits her character and becomes a mother that loves her children more than anything in the world. I couldn’t help but compare Leo’s performance to Mickey Rourke’s role in The Wrestler; I cared for both characters so much that I wanted to burst through the screen and hug them. Rourke should and probably will win the Oscar, and, while Leo deserves the same fate, she may have to accept the Nomination as her prize. Misty Upham is great in support of Leo, and their awkward friendship which develops into a mutual battle for survival is a heart-felt arc for the story.
While Leo will receive most of the credit, let’s not forget writer/director Courtney Hunt, who’s also nominated for an Oscar (Best Original Screenplay). Hunt’s writing and direction firmly place the film within a stark reality; it’s almost as if we’re watching a voyeuristic filming of Ray and Lila’s lives, as they seem like real people with genuine problems.
Ultimately, Frozen River is an uncompromising look at what people pushed to the edge of financial survival will do to stay afloat. That it involves children and single mothers makes it all the more poignant. The conclusion of the film is simple and bleak, yet rewarding in a way because it doesn’t deviate from the rest of the movie like so many endings do. Frozen River is a film that’s going to be criminally under-seen, so do yourself a favor and give it a chance.
Given Frozen River’s independent status, I wasn’t really expecting much extra material, thus I wasn’t disappointed when I discovered only a single Special Feature. All we get is an audio commentary with writer/director Hunt and producer Heather Rae, and I must admit, it’s rather dull. They offer no real insight into the characters or the situations they’re in, instead focusing on the technical aspects of shot composition, filming conditions, and the general process of making Frozen River. Some of it is initially interesting, but it becomes tedious and boring, and then just maddening that Hunt doesn’t offer any background as to how or why she wrote and told this particular story.
Regardless of the lack of Special Features, Frozen River is a fantastic film that everyone should see. I can’t recommend that you buy it, but I do implore you to put it at the very top of your “Movies to Rent” list.