“Frozen River” – AWFJ Outreach – Jenny Halper’s Students Write Reviews

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Under the banner of “community outreach,” Boston-based AWFJ member Jenny Halper screened “Frozen River” for her students at Emerson College’s Young Writers Program, then assigned them to review the film.

Intending to learn the fundamentals of screenwriting and complete 30 pages of a screenplay by the end of summer, nine high school juniors and seniors, aged 16 and 17, signed up for Halper’s non-credit course.

Halper comments: “The class focuses on characters creating a story, rather than a story being imposed on characters. Students complete writing exercises and study pertinent films–including “Tootsie” and “Chinatown,” as well as “Frozen River.”

Every Friday, the class watches a movie that exemplifies the elements of screenwriting we’ve discussed in class. I was particularly interested in screening “Frozen River” because of the students’ interest in some of the darker, more realistic films from which I’ve shown clips (“Sherrybaby” and “The Woodsman,” among others). I also thought “Frozen River” to be a particularly well-done example of an extremely complex–and often unsympathetic–protagonist making an impossible choice. When I watched the film, I thought that the climax was beautifully set-up–yet surprising as well. In class, I’ve emphasized that characters should creat plot rather than plot imposing itself on characters, and Hunt’s script is a great example of this.

After we watched the movie, I told the students to write a review (400-500 words) that focused on either the structure of the story, or the principal characters and their racial bias, or the moral issues raised. If there were aspects of the movie they didn’t like (or if they just flat out didn’t like the film), I told them to feel free to write about it.

Our discussion, conducted after most of the reviews had been written (I didn’t want their classmates’ comments to influence their first impressions), focused on Ray and Lila as unsympathetic characters, and on several plot points that the students felt could have been stronger–namely, Lila taking the baby from her mother-in-law, and Ray’s son accepting Lila’s care, considering that he is racist too. We also talked about Ray’s narrow-minded perspective (which I’d discussed with Hunt and Melissa Leo when I interviewed them) and how Ray’s background/backstory could have caused her to behave the way she did.”

The Students’ Reviews (in random order):

  • Sydney Rubin: The film “Frozen River,” directed by Courtney Hunt, is portrayal of a broken family and a thriving smuggling business in the Mohawk lands of upstate New York. One of the most striking things about this film is the full development of the characters. As the movie goes on, the many complexities of their personalities and their experiences are slowly revealed. Characters that, initially, seem simplistic and straightforward are really anything but. It is also refreshing to see such a strong leading female role. Even through the hardships of being a single mother and struggling to make ends meet, Ray is a badass, even if we do not share her prejudices – and not to the point where her character is unreal. That being said, some (not all) of the actors’ performances leave something to be desired. Overall, this is a good movie with a solid plot that addresses the very real issues of single parenthood (especially in the lower class), illegal immigration, and even racism.

    (Sydney Rubin is a senior at U-32 High School in Montpelier, VT. She is currently in Emerson’s Young Writers summer program. Her favorite movie is “Harold & Maude.”)

  • Leah Welcome:The movie “Frozen River” shows the story of two women going to desperate lengths for their families. Ray is a middle aged woman whose husband has left her and their two sons, taking most of the money for their new house with him. Lila is a Mohawk woman whose son was taken from her by her mother-in-law. The women try to solve their problems by illegally smuggling people into the country for money. I thought that although this plot could have carried the movie far, the film fell short. There were a few scenes that seemed unrealistic and awkward. For example, Lila goes to her mother-in-law’s house at the end of the movie to take back her son, and is able to do so with little to no effort. Also, when the women are discovered by the police, Ray decides to abandon her sons for four months to go to prison, and asks Lila to care for her children. I thought that this ending didn’t make sense–I don’t think that the women had formed a strong enough bond yet for Ray to be asking such a huge favor of Lila. Also, if Ray had been smuggling in order to help her family, it doesn’t make sense that she would just leave them so that Lila wouldn’t have to go to prison. I also thought that the characters should have been portrayed in a way to evoke sympathy. I felt nothing for Ray because she was racist, and almost seemed to be neglecting her children in her attempts to earn enough money for their new home. Lila didn’t say much of anything, so I found it difficult to have any semblance of attachment to her. In the end, I was disappointed by this movie because the plot and characters could have been extremely compelling, but the plot seemed stretched and thin in some places, and the characters were all too flat.
  • Bert Connelly: “Frozen River,” the directorial debut of Courtney Hunt, left me cold. The film is centered on the story of two single mothers and the lengths they will go to in order to try to make ends meet. While the premise and even many of the performances are strong, the film as a whole just does not hold up.

    Melissa Leo gives an excellent turn as Ray Eddy, a single mother trying to raise two kids on the New York-Quebec border. She is as cold as ice and nearly impossible to sympathize with, especially once we learn that she shot her run-away husband, and yet you find yourself pulling for her and her kids. When Ray Eddy finds her believed-to-be stolen car outside the trailer of a young Mohawk woman and cuts a deal with her to help her smuggle illegal immigrants across the border, we are able to keep rooting for her. When she goes on a furious rant about her hatred of Pakis, we are still able to root for her. That is the mark of an excellent performance.

    That young Mohawk woman is named Lila (Misty Upham), and she too is a single mother trying to get by. Upham also gives an excellent performance and really gives life to character who could have otherwise been a footnote. The movie treats the new illegal immigrant “crisis” as if it is the latest in the “war on drugs”. The two woman are essentially smugglers, what they are smuggling hardly seems to matter.

    The film is dealing with some very complex relationships and issues, but none of them ever come to fruition or are fully realized. The ending of the movie feels rushed and inconclusive, but by this point you don’t really care to see any more into the lives of these people. Even at 97 minutes the film feels loose and could use a bit of tightening, there is a lot of seemingly unnecessary B-roll footage that doesn’t fit all that well and even some minor plot points that were not needed.

    Overall strong performances from the lead actors and some very interesting shot selections save the movie from falling into the category of “Indie trash.” The movie does paint a picture of strong women surviving without the aide of responsible men, but it might be time to ditch the finger paint and show this plight from an angle that we haven’t seen before.

    (Bert Connelly is a senior at Sharon High School, where he is the editor-in-chief of the school’s paper. His interests include poetry, screenplays, music, and The Big Lebowski.)

  • Andrew Rodes: Courtney Hunt’s directorial debut, “Frozen River,” was mediocre at best. Though the visual style of the film made it look as if Hunt knew what she was doing, her ability to write a concrete script and direct actors seemed to lack.

    The main character in the film, Ray Eddy, was the most emotionless individual on the face of the Earth. After her husband ran off to Atlantic City to satisfy his gambling addiction, with money she and her lower-class family needed to buy a house, Ray Eddy basically shrugs it off, practically telling her two sons to “get over it.” She lies to her children, one of whom is 15 years old and seems more adult-like than his mother, even through a pathetic excuse for acting. Melissa Leo’s portrayal of Eddy doesn’t help the situation. The most excitement we get out of Leo during the first act of the film is seeing her smoke while she wastes away a pitiful life.

    It took until the second act for Eddy to become interesting, if you can call it that. To pay the bills she began, through no fault of her own, smuggling illegal immigrants into the country through the US-Canadian border. But that was it. She didn’t change. She had no motivation, except to get Charlie McDermott’s character to stop mumbling insults about her not being able to provide for the family.

    As the climax comes and goes almost unnoticed, Eddy is forced to make a decision. She can save herself, pay for a new house for her family, and live happily ever after, or she can sacrifice herself and help someone she, for most of the film, seemed to loathe. Out of nowhere she decides to go against everything her character had ever stood for, which wasn’t much, and help out a ‘friend,’ if you can even call Misty Upham’s Lila that. In the process, her sad attempt to save her family and prove herself to her son fail, but somehow her two children feel perfectly fine and are upbeat when Lila, a person whom they’ve never met before, arrives with her 1 year old son, to take care of them and buy them a new house. And then, to make things better, after Eddy’s eldest son steals an elderly woman’s credit card number, the closest thing to closure we get is his apology, when he says “Sorry,” after a police officer forces him to.

    Ms. Hunt, what the judges at Sundance saw in your film, I do not know. But after you try to make us fall in love with a character who takes joy in racial profiling and tossing babies into frozen lakes, you leave us wanting more, not because we loved the characters and the story, but because nothing happened. Nothing changed. Nothing was at stake. Nothing makes this movie worth seeing.

    (Andrew Rodes is entering his senior year at The Newman School in Boston. He is an award winning writer-director, and has created or co-created three television series for public broadcasting, and acted as the head writer of the short lived, award winning sitcom Spare Change. He hopes to continue his study of film and creative writing in the future.)

  • Brian Ducoffe: The movie “Frozen River” deals with the issues of a small town family whose luck runs out. It’s a movie that mainstream Hollywood would never produce because it’s not an action packed movie with special effects and romance, but that that is all the more reason why this movie is unique, because it’s rare to find a film that focus on such a small, yet very real issue that American’s face. Overall it was a solid movie. It was well shot and produced, but I felt the overall plot was a bit lacking. I felt that the script left a lot out. The movie starts out with the mother searching for her husband, and by the end of the film the search for her husband is completely forgotten. In my opinion the second act of this movie is the strongest part. The introduction seemed to jump into action too quickly, and the ending seemed to leave too many things open or vague. It seems like the very end seemed too rushed as if trying to keep under a specific time restraint. We don’t see the family get the new house, we don’t find out if the dad comes home, and it seems like the oldest son is too acceptable with his mom going to jail and this Indian girl moving in with her baby. (Especially seeing he’s the one who wanted to kick some “Mohawk ass.”) This film resembled the perfect film for the festival circuit: Feature length on the short end, good cinematography, intriguing story, and good actors. The little boy in this film is simply adorable. It’s no doubt that it was picked up by Sony Pictures. But I don’t know if it’s worth a $10 movie ticket. Overall I would give this movie two and a half stars out of five.

    (Brian Ducoffe is a high school student at Canyon Crest Academy in San Diego, CA. He is a local filmmaker and scriptwriter. He has had scripts featured in the 2007 Action On International Film Festival, local Film competitions, and the Rooftop Summer Film Festival. He will be featured in an upcoming addition of Hollywood Scriptwriter Magazine. Films Brian have made include Seven Steps to Heaven, The Bloomberg’s, and Sound Kills.)

  • Kilian Webster: While chuckling to myself over hearing, “it’s Mohawk land” for the thousandth time, it dawned on me that I probably shouldn’t be laughing. This was a high-stress time for the characters in the film…so much was at stake. Instead of giggling with my peers over the frozen baby incident or Ray’s son’s obsession with Hot Wheels, I should have been rooting for the characters. I should have wanted Ray Eddy to earn enough money to buy the house and treat her children to a good Christmas.

    Instead, I found myself laughing at these people’s lives. I think that part of the reason was because Melissa Leo’s character was so unsympathetic. I assume that since the movie was centered around her life, she was supposed to be the protagonist, but I felt as though the movie was wasted on her. She was a deadbeat mother who left her children alone on Christmas Eve. She was so unreliable that her son was ready to steal money from an old woman to pay for their house. I was almost relieved when she wound up going to jail. At least maybe then she’d grow up a little.

    I guess in some cases this deadbeat mother thing could work- sort of like a Hannibal Lecter sympathetic antagonist thing. I think that in order for this to happen, the mother would have to have some kind of visible love for her children besides the “no blowtorch when I’m not home” rule. Lila is sympathetic in that way. The audience really sees how much she longs to care for her child. For that reason, I was happy when she took her baby back, as awkwardly portrayed as that was. I feel like if Ray was more caring toward her children, I would have been able to relate to her more.

    This movie definitely had the potential to be good. Unfortunately, because the main character’s role was not portrayed sympathetically, most of the scenes that were meant to be serious came across as funny.

    (Kilian Webster is a senior at Avon High School. She loves writing short stories, acting, and playing/listening to music. This is her first movie review.)

  • Brandon Martin: The film “Frozen River” follows two women as they struggle to support their family by trafficking immigrants from Canada into America. What seems like an interesting concept ultimately falls apart when it is realized how much contempt is felt for the characters and the many anti-climactic moments. As a result the pacing suffers. It is a challenge just to watch all ninety-one minutes and by the films ends the only relief comes from knowing that such a chore is finished.

    The main characters are Ray Eddy, a single mother raising two children, and Lila, a Mohawk who struggles knowing she is not able to care for her own child. The director pulls out all the stops to show pity for these characters. It works up until paths collide and their true scorn is shown. The pity then transforms into an annoyance as the characters wrongful choices and outward prejudices start to grate at the movies possible uniqueness. What is produced is no more than a buddy cop type relationship where in the end the characters over come their differences by the help of an abrupt epiphany.

    Most crucial to this film’s failure is the anti-climactic feeling that is felt after each supposed tense moment. Certainly there is worry, however mild, for many of the characters misguided decisions, but overall there is no sense of urgency. A poignant example can be seen when Ray’s oldest son decides to put a hot flame to one of the frozen pipes or when Ray accidentally throws out a young Pakistani couples child onto the frozen river, mistaking it for something suspicious. Though these may seem like tense moments ultimately they are ruined by the characters nonchalant attitudes, further digressing the film’s value.

    Though this film has plenty of potential and opportunity for a unique story the director squanders this for cliché character relationships and many anti-climactic scenes, contributing ultimately to its plain dullness.

  • Brenna Healy: Before watching the movie “Frozen River,” I have to admit that I had high expectations. The accomplishment of having won the grand jury prize for a drama at this year’s Sundance Film Festival is a pretty big deal, and I personally feel as though it under delivered.

    Having enjoyed many Sundance selections over the past few years, I have grown confident that the audiences and juries will steer me in the right directions, dreaming that I will become lost in a new independent gem. However, Courtney Hunt’s directorial debut comes across as more of a mixed up jumble of thoughts and ideas rather than a cohesive collection of characters and plot points.

    The story revolves around Ray Eddie (played by a captivating Melissa Leo), a down on her luck mother living in rural New York. The entire premise of the story focuses on Ray’s proximity to “Mohawk Land”, or simply Native American territory, and the different rules and ways of living that complicate everyone’s lives. Due to her addict husband leaving her, and the holiday season approaching, Ray ends up creating a smuggling business with a young Mohawk woman (relative newcomer Misty Upham, whose monotone and awkward dialogue feel out of place), leading her towards Canada frequently, and towards more problems.

    The main issue with this movie is the fact that it relies solely on the audience feeling sympathy for Ray’s situation and overall life. We are meant to believe that she is breaking the laws, and endangering herself, just to protect her kids and give them the life they deserve. I see this played out on the screen, but I do not feel it. I do not feel sympathy for this character, who makes mistakes after mistakes, when we hardly see her interact with her children, or vocally worry about normal mundane things mothers often worry about for their children. I want to believe that Ray has no other options other than illegally transporting immigrants over the Canadian border, but it seems more like an easy route to take. If you want to watch a messed up mother navigate the dangerous sea of illegal activity, while trying to take care of her two children, I would point you in the direction of Mary-Louise Parker and the latest season of “Weeds.”

    I do believe that the general idea of “Frozen River” and Melissa Leo’s haunting performance saves an otherwise lackluster film, but it simply is not enough to keep me engaged and wanting more. The plot points only get more outrageous as the movie reaches its climax, and the ending has you doubting the characters, and if it would even occur in real life. I am all for independent films, mothers trying to provide for their children, and even illegal activity, but this movie felt more like a shell of a good idea than a serious, award worthy film.

    (My name’s Brenna Healy, and I’m going to be a senior this year at Vermont Academy. I am seventeen years old, and from Concord, Massachusetts. I watch a lot of movies in my spare time, and I am currently being introduced to writing screenplays.)

  • Alison Kozol: I’m sixteen years old, I have never done a movie review before, and I still haven’t decided if “Frozen River,” a movie written and directed by newcomer Courtney Hunt, accurately depicts a woman smuggling illegal immigrants over the Canadian border. The woman, Ray Eddy, doing the aforementioned smuggling is played by Melissa Leo (21 Grams), one of the two talented actors in the film. Leo is brutal as a woman whose husband has recently run away, just in time for the holidays, with the money for her beloved new trailer home in tow. To make the final payments, she picks up escorting immigrants via the trunk of her almost stolen car, with help from a Native American with Postpartum Depression, Lila, played by Misty Upham (Skins), who not only shaved her signature waist-long hair, but gained forty pounds for the part. Together, they fall into several hijinks, including nursing a baby, hiding from the cops, and hiding a baby from the cops. The two obviously become friends after spending some intense times together. My question of accuracy occurs during the scenes between Ray and her children, T.J.(Charlie McDermott), a brooding teenager who desperately wants a job to help “buy food that’s not popcorn and Tang”, and Ricky (James Reilly), the clueless kid who only wants a Hot Wheels set, and of course, his dad, back for Christmas. McDermott’s acting is unbelievable; I do not believe he is Ray’s son, nor do I believe he is less fortunate. All I really believe from him is that he’s an angst-ridden teenager—something he probably didn’t have to pretend to be. Reilly, as well, didn’t have to act as a clueless youngster, just had to play with toys and pout a bit. Many of the character quirks are found through clichéd props—the cigarette always smoked by Ray shows how ‘bad-ass’ she is, the constant frown on T.J.’s face shows how brooding he is. However the plot is strong, at least strong enough to win an award at Sundance’s Dramatic Competition. The cinematography is well done—but it’s pretty hard to make a frozen St. Lawrence River look ugly. The concept of the movie is the age-old unlikely friendship story—that a friendship knows no boundaries. Ray and Lila start off hating each other, due to racial differences. They learn to be friends throughout the film, finishing with perhaps the most unlikely ending possible. If one was to look for an unlikely friendship story, however, “Crash” or “Harold and Maude” are much better choices.
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Jenny Halper

Jenny Halper is the film editor of Spare Change News, a Cambridge bi-monthly dedicated to empowering the homeless. She's written for the Boston Phoenix, Boston Now, NewEnglandFilm.com, amNewYork, Beliefnet, Cinema Confidential, Park Slope Reader, and Knit Simple Magazine, among others, and has served as a film critic/entertainment reporter for Track Entertainment and ClickFlicks.net. Her fiction has appeared in journals including Smokelong Quarterly and New England Fiction Meeting House, and has been a finalist for prizes from Glimmer Train and the Sonora Review. A graduate of Northwestern University, she is currently earning an MFA at Emerson College.