Cracking the celluloid ceiling, one day at a time.
Reading time: 1 minute
Year of release: 2009 // Director: Courtney Hunt // Screenplay: Courtney Hunt // Starring: Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, Charlie McDermott // Country: USA
At the time of its release, Frozen River was described by some as an ‘anti-chick flick‘ – presumably because it’s a film about women, but the story’s a little sombre and nobody shouts ‘You go, girl!’ at any point. In any case, it’s a short-sighted description which belittles Courtney Hunt’s beautifully understated work.
Frozen River charts the working relationship of two destitute women in Upstate New York: Ray (Melissa Leo), a mother-of-two whose husband abandons the family several days before Christmas, and Lila (Misty Upham), a young widow and member of the Mohawk tribe. Anxious to rebuild some kind of security for her children, Ray agrees to help the gumptious youngster smuggle illegal immigrants into the States, via an unknown border in the heart of tribal territory.
Against the backdrop of a merciless, East Coast winter, Hunt portrays the kind of grinding, working-class American life seldom seen in films. There are constant, dark reminders of how these women have had adapt to survive, with no money or education to help them handle their problems with more ease. Lila’s dead-pan assertions that Ray need never worry about state troopers “because you’re white” are more troubling than reassuring. The candidness with which handguns are drawn and fired is pretty unnerving; in this film, there isn’t even a glimmer of the pomp and circumstance which Hollywood attributes to firearms.
That the narrative rarely veers from Ray and Lila’s central storyline is testament to Hunt’s confidence in her script. The core pieces of dialogue are fantastically written, especially in the first half. Often communicating within the confines of a stuttering car, the characters exchange jagged barbs, interspersed with tense silences and occasionally gentle words, as they struggle to adjust to the idea that they must completely trust each other in order to survive. Their slow progression from distrust to affection does not feel at all contrived or rushed. Those scenes which take place on the frozen river are especially powerful, and almost flawlessly constructed.
Hunt’s leading ladies are fantastic in their respective roles. All the hurt and fear bottled inside of Lila spills out of Misty Upham’s dark eyes. It is one of the subtlest film performances I have seen in quite a while. Meanwhile, Melissa Leo is superb as Ray. She lends a brittle wit and credible composure to the character, so that her desperation doesn’t ever spill into melodramatic tantrum-throwing. Leo’s performance was quite rightly Oscar-nominated, and is a worthy pivot for this moving, utterly unpretentious film.