There is no more palpable desperation than that of a mother who can’t feed her children. This is true of fathers too, but many of them run out simply because they know that when the chips are down the mother will come through because she has no other choice. This is not to say that every parent is so responsible but in Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River, the mothers fight hard for the right to provide for their kids.
With no means to make any kind of real money, they find themselves hopelessly drawn to the underground world of human smuggling. All you need is to be white (non-Mohawk) and have a car trunk with a button release. When your kids have nothing to eat for dinner but popcorn and you can make $1200 in one night is there really a choice?
Frozen River is a film about two mothers. The first, Ray Eddy is played by Melissa Leo in what is sure to be one of the year’s most memorable performances. Leo plays her as a woman falling apart from the inside out but who still goes through the rather futile motions of putting on mascara and “fixing” her hair. These scenes are the most devastating because this isn’t a woman who has given up on life; this is a woman who will hang on until she has nothing left to hang on with. She’s tough because life has made her that way.
The other woman, Lila (Misty Upham), is a Mohawk Indian who has been caught smuggling before and thus has been treated with shame by her fellow tribespeople to the point where her mother-in-law (husband is long gone) is now raising her infant whom she wants back so badly she can think of nothing else.
The two women, living right on the edge, find each other and eventually they decide to work as a team, driving over a river that freezes every winter to pick up brave souls willing to hide in a trunk to get to the US and then drive them back over the border and to a motel.
Both women have a set goal in mind – one to buy her two boys a double-wide, put food on the table and deliver presents by Christmas Eve and the other to make enough to afford to take care of her son. Even though they are pushed into the extreme – illegal work for fast cash – it’s hard not to care about these women.
Writer/director Hunt doesn’t force us to care by making them too perfect; they have glaring flaws and unlikable qualities, like smoking in front of the kids or thinking anyone from the Middle East is a terrorist. Ray treats her older son terribly half the time by not acknowledging how much he does around the house. Lila is so stubborn she can’t hold onto a job because she refuses to get glasses and is, therefore, blind.
From each other they learn to compromise, to give up what they dream about for something they can live with. Frozen River is a beautiful collaboration between a very talented writer/director with her first feature and a few good women who capture all of that wild desperation the way a river captures ice, freezes solid and stands still for a time. The river will flow again.