Friday, November 7, 2008

Frozen River (Rhoades)

‘Frozen River’ Thaws Hearts At the Tropic

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Here’s a Christmas movie that’s about as bleak as a Charles Dickens carol gone bad.

In Courtney Hunt’s directing debut, she takes us to the edge of the frozen St. Lawrence River where illegal immigrants are smuggled across the ice in the winter. Hence, the film’s title: “Frozen River.” It opens today at the Tropic Cinema.

“Frozen River” focuses on two trailer-trash single moms -- one white and the other Mohawk – involved in secreting aliens across an unsecured border point between a New York Indian reservation and Quebec. Things are tough, with families living on popcorn and powdered juice, worrying that the rent-to-own TV is about to be repossessed, and facing a Christmas without presents for the kids.

Melissa Leo (“Mr. Woodcock,” “Righteous Kill”) takes on the role of an abandoned fortysomething woman with little prospects, other than being a minor cog in an underground railway transporting illegals into the US. Her performance is getting Oscar buzz.
From the opening scene – a straight-on shot of her face registering Grapes-of-Wrath depression – you know this is going to be a memorable film.

“Frozen River” won the Grand Jury Prize at 2008’s Sundance Film Festival. And has picked up six other festival wins so far.

Missy Upham (“Skins”) chopped off her waist-length hair and gained 40 pounds to portray the second woman, a Native American who has an even tougher life. A new widow with a one-year-old child she steals a car abandoned by the first woman’s runaway husband and gets her involved in the smuggling racket rather than give it back.

Determined to close down this human contraband route is Trooper Finnerty, a dogged Javert ably played by Michael O’Keefe (“The Glass House”).

Where did director-writer Courtney Hunt come up with this off-the-beaten-track story? “My husband comes from a little town up in that region of the world,” she says. “Smuggling has been going on there since Prohibition … liquor, cigarettes, at this point illegals. And then I learned women where involved in it and I thought that was kinda crazy. So I went and met some women smugglers and talked to them about how they did it and why the did it, and kinda went from there.”

Hunt elaborates: “It’s a pretty bold thing to do, to drive across a mile-wide frozen river that’s probably a hundred feet deep with a fast moving current y’know in your car. So that alone, it says daring. And you think more of men smugglers doing that. I don’t necessarily think of women doing that, but that they did I think is kinda interesting.”

“Frozen River” explores the cultural differences of two diverse women stuck inside a car together. “It’s an awkwardness we’ll feel more and more as the world gets smaller,” she observes. “Americans are so insular, but so are the Mohawks.”

Ultimately what connects the characters is their motherly instincts. “Probably the most important thing that’s happen to me in my life is that I had a baby.” Observes Hunt. “When you have a child everything shifts.” She feels this is true of every culture and every person, a commonality that can bring us together.

The director’s message? That we should look beyond assumptions about other people. “When we drive down the road outside New York City and we see trailers and you think you know who lives inside,” she says. “I think we all feel like, oh, I know, they didn’t quite get the money thing together, maybe there’s a little addiction going on, you make these assumptions … I guess I wanted the film to show, yeah, that may be true, but it doesn’t mean that’s all for the people, the working poor, that are living in these trailers. There’s heroism there, there’s grace there, there’s compassion there, and it may come in a little bit of a funny package but that doesn’t make it any less valuable.”

Because this is a grim and gritty Christmas Carol, the film ultimately offers redemption for these two desperate housewives. Some hard-hearted critics reject the film’s happy ending, preferring to see the characters crash in a downward spiral of despair.

Not me. I like to hold out hope for the human spirit, no matter how small.
[from Solares Hill]

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