“What if a trooper stops us? -They're not gonna stop you, you're white.”
Frozen River made a lot of noise in 2008 after debuting in the Sundance Film Festival and winning the Grand Jury Prize. It went on to win many other awards and even received two Academy Award nominations for best lead performance from Melissa Leo and for original screenplay written by Courtney Hunt who also directed this grim indie film. It is an impressive debut film considering the subject matter usually doesn’t attract much attention. The story centers on a mother who’s left with the task of raising her two children on her own after her husband has abandoned them ten days before Christmas. He took off with the money that her wife had been saving. It takes place in Massena, New York, near the Canadian border where a Mohawk reservation exists. She meets a Mohawk named Lila and circumstances lead her to smuggle illegal immigrants across a frozen river in order to sustain her family. Frozen River is a character study of a hard willed woman who is determined to do what it takes to provide for her children. It can be a challenging watch for the audience, but Melissa Leo’s authentic performance makes it an engaging one. There are very few films that center around strong female characters, and Courtney Hunt has directed and written a powerful one. This film reminds me a lot of Winter Bone (which came out a couple of years later) which also benefited from a strong female performance. It is a tale of endurance and focuses on the American underclass that very seldom is portrayed on film in an authentic manner. I enjoyed this film so much that I’m actually looking forward to Hunt’s next film (The Whole Truth) which will be released this year.
Melissa Leo deservedly received an Oscar nod for her performance and I think this was the perfect role for her. She has this authentic look and is credible as a single mother who is willing to do what it takes to get out of her current situation. Her chemistry with Misty Upham is what makes this film standout. Upham is also given a strong female character to play and she delivers a strong performance. She and Leo’s character both are going through difficult moments in their lives struggling with poverty. They are matched together by the circumstances they are facing despite their differences and that relationship is the heart of the film. The kids played by Charlie McDermott and James Reilly are both solid, but the female characters are the heart and soul of this film. The scenery also plays a huge role in this film considering the harsh and freezing conditions are transmitted to the characters in the story. They struggle and battle with the adversities presented in their lives with fearless strength. It is a small gritty indie drama that is worth checking out, especially if you were a fan of Winter’s Bone.