Upstate New York, and the cold is thin and sharp in the weak harsh light of morning. Ray (Melissa Leo) sits in the driveway in her nightgown, having a smoke, barefoot. The company's bringing her family's new double-wide trailer today, and all she needs to do is give them the first payment. But that money's gone, stolen by her husband, taken to the casino, just like before. The company won't drop off her new home without the payment; they head back to the lot. She gets her sons ready for school, digging lunch money out of the few coins she has left, and then she's going to try and find her husband at the bingo parlor on the Mohawk reservation before working her part-time shift at the American Dollar discount store. She can't give up. She's going to get that home delivered before Christmas. But that's going to take money. And getting that much money that fast is going to take everything.
Written and directed by Courtney Hunt, Frozen River began as a short film that bowed at Sundance several years ago; like Half Nelson, that short became a feature film. The Grand Jury Prize winner from the Dramatic Competition at this year's Sundance Film Festival, Frozen River is anchored by strong performances, carefully crafted and shot on DV with an eye on art, not mere economy. Ray's search for her husband brings her to the Mohawk Reservation; she finds her husband's car, but not her husband. When Lila (Misty Upham) drives off in his sedan, Ray follows her to a trailer in the woods. Lila thought the car was abandoned; the keys were inside. And she needs a car with a push-button trunk. ...
Lila is a smuggler; she drives across the iced-over river to the Mohawk reservation in Quebec, on the other side of the Canadian border, picks up illegal immigrants, then drives back across the river to the Mohawk territory in the U.S. Ray learns all this after being unknowingly enlisted in one of Lila's night time runs. It's not safe. It's not smart. It's not legal. It also means Ray has $1,200 that she didn't have before the trip. At one point, Ray's younger son asks her what's going to happen to their old home after the new one arrives. Well, she explains, they'll smash it up, and turn it into scrap, and send it to China and make it into toys that I can sell at the American Dollar. ... Ray knows exactly how the world works for people like her; she would change it if she could, but she can't. Lila doesn't care how the world works; she's moving people from point a to point b on Mohawk land. It's not her border. Both Ray and Lila can make excuses about what they're doing all day long: those excuses may suggest a political position, they may spring from rough rationalizations, but either way, they can each earn more in a night of smuggling than they could in a month of "honest" work at minimum wage.
Both Leo and Upham are excellent; Leo plays Ray with the hard-won, weary tenacity of a woman who's been on the edge for so long that she's almost bored with the view. Upham not only captures the face Lila shows the world, but the why and what behind her equally urgent need for money. Frozen River may sound like a standard-issue independent kitchen-sink drama, but it also has fierce, blunt comedy in it. Ray and Lila are women at odds with the world, and their sisterhood, born of necessity, is uncomfortable and unsentimental, on thin ice. Frozen River also moves with real dramatic tension, too; for all of the grounded, realistic socio-economic forces at play in the film, it's also a movie about a series of crimes.
For all of its nuanced performances and careful social commentary, Frozen River isn't afraid -- or ashamed -- to get a little extra juice from crime movie elements like the interplay of risk-versus-reward and the depiction of little slips that could become catastrophic falls while people aren't paying attention. Hunt's writing and directing turns what could have been a strident or small film into a human and engaging story. Frozen River is also smart enough to keep us on our toes, to have every character make small mistakes that are loaded with the ugly potential to become huge ones. Frozen River's final act has a few surprises to it -- reversals, revelations, repentances -- and they all make sense in the context of the film that went before, from who these people are, from how these characters want to live. It's easy to see why the Sundance Jury awarded Frozen River with honors; if the Grand Jury Prize helps make it easier for people to see Frozen River, all the better.