This low budget indie film is a very excellent debut for Courtney Hunt, and is a solid little thriller/character study of poverty and what it can drive people too.
Ray (Melissa Leo) has two sons and they live on the U.S./Canadian border in New York, they were planning on getting a new double wide home to replace their aging mobile home, only to have her gambling addicted husband run off in the middle of the night to blow the deposit needed for delivery; while also possibly blowing off the family as well. Ray, who works part time at a dollar store is left with a deadline of Christmas (only a few days a way) and little to no idea of what she can do to get the money back to pay for the house and give her family a present that they deserve. Her older son T.J. takes care of her younger son Ricky, and when T.J. offers to get a job, Ray proclaims he is not quitting school. After scrounging together change for lunch money for the two, Ray heads out to look for her husband, finding his car at a high stakes bingo, only to discover it in the hands of a young Mohawk woman, Lila. Ray and Lila get into a bit of a tussle over the car and before Ray knows it she is smuggling immigrants across the St. Lawrence from Canada into the U.S. After a bit of drama and awkward posturing, Ray is back home with her husband’s car, down her own, and no better a situation then when the day started. But desperate times call for desperate measures and she must decide what she is willing to do for her family.
The film moves along at a brisk pace and even in its simple photography and low budget, it rarely detracts from the viewing experience. The director, Hunt, also wrote the picture and she has crafted an original and wonderful little hybrid of genres, mixing in tension, suspense, drama, and some great character study work all into one. Lila pans out to be a significant role in the story and while the plot might seem a bit implausible, there are probably people just like this that do what they have to do to get by.
Now, the films budget leaves a couple of short comings that don’t really hurt the picture, there were just a few moments where you are like, oh man, imagine what she could have done with a budget of some sorts. It could have allowed Hunt to take the picture into truly great heights, and while I think the film works great as it is, I sit and wonder what it could have been potentially. I will say, the final decision of one character in the film is quite selfless, but remains hard to buy that they would do what they do.
The acting in the film is pretty much fantastic from the mother/son team, and while Misty Upham as Lila left a bit to be desired, she does a good enough job especially when looking at the films constraints. Upham is obviously the weak link in the picture acting wise or the leads, but she still does a fine enough job of feeling compassion for her and her situation, though she isn’t as intimidating as she needs to be in the early goings of the film. Charlie McDermott as T.J. is just great in this picture, and I hope he has a bit of a breakout because of it. He plays the conflicted teenager to great effect along with protective brother, taking on a bit of a father’s role in the film. McDermott also does a good job of bring some sweet and funny moments between him and Leo, keeping the proceedings light enough among the serious drama unfolding. Melissa Leo is marvelous as Ray, perfectly capturing the mother that has to censor her emotions from her children as she struggles to keep going on. Ashamed and embarrassed Leo takes Ray to the brink and makes us believe her characters path and her tough girl attitude. Leo also builds all of these emotions off her desire to make a better life for her family and every decision she makes we can see her desperation in her eyes to make things better; and Leo nails it.
In the end, Frozen River is a great indie feature that shows that you don’t need millions of dollars and A-list actors to create a compelling, touching, and thought provoking picture. The film will engage you from start to finish and throw you curveballs you don’t see coming. A fantastic debut by Hunt, I can’t wait to see what she does next and with a bit more of a budget. Melissa Leo is wonderful and deserves her Oscar nomination and is just one piece of the puzzle that makes this film great, as there is a lot to like here.