The deserved winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, Courtney Hunt’s “Frozen River” tells the story of two desperately poor women–one Caucasian, one Mohawk–in dreary upstate New York who form an uneasy alliance to smuggle illegal immigrants across the frozen, yet treacherous St. Lawrence River that separates Canada from the United States.
Just before Christmas, Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) realizes her gambling husband has run off with all the money she was saving to buy a new double-wide trailer. Abandoned with only a part-time job at the Yankee Dollar Store, she’s destitute. Her squalid trailer is falling apart, her kids (Charlie McDermott, James Reilly) have only popcorn and Tang for dinner, and there’s nothing for holiday presents. So when she spies her husband’s car at a bingo parlor on the barren Mohawk reservation, Ray follows the woman who stole it. It’s Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), a single mother who is trying to regain custody of her child by using the Dodge Spirit – with its pop-up trunk – to smuggle aliens from China and Pakistan. While neither woman truly trusts the other, their mutual struggle forms a bond of shared economic need. Racism is endemic with the border police, so a white woman driving is much less likely to be questioned than a Native American. Yet it’s a dangerous decision for both.
Writer/director Courtney Hunt creates a completely believable, wintry world that’s filled with suspicion and extreme anxiety, eliciting gritty, grounded performances from her entire cast, particularly Melissa Leo (“21 Grams”), who should certainly be on the short list for Oscar consideration. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Frozen River” is a compelling 9, as a compassionate, cross-cultural chronicle of humanity besieged by hard times.