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August 4, 2008 |

By Ted Boynton | Film | August 4, 2008 |

Every once in a while the Sundance Film Festival pushes out a grubby little gem of a film to remind us why high profile film festivals matter: to give a chance to so-called small films that otherwise would never be seen. When these films succeed, they do a nice job of pantsing the studio system in all its incompetent, grab-ass glory. In helping them succeed, Sundance atones in some small measure for the smug hordes of fleece-vest-wearing, hybrid-Highlander-driving cineastes unleashed into the world at the end of each January.

Frozen River is this year’s Little Engine That Could, a moving character study by writer/director Courtney Hunt about an impoverished woman caring for two sons in the pre-Christmas winter of upstate New York. Trailer home mother Ray Eddy, played with gut-punch intensity by Melissa Leo (21 Grams, “Homicide: Life on the Street”), has reached the end of her ability to patch together a household with crappy retail jobs at low-rent discount stores. When Ray’s no-good gambling addict husband absconds with their meager funds - a roll of cash earmarked to upgrade their trailer situation from “shitty” to “dreary” - Ray finds an unlikely ally in Lila (Misty Upham), a young Native American woman from the nearby Mohawk reservation.

Saddled with family problems of her own, Lila initially steals the car Ray’s husband abandoned at an Indian casino, intending to use it for her moonlighting job as a smuggler. After a physical confrontation with Lila over the car, Ray takes a keen interest in the money Lila makes sneaking immigrants across the Canadian border into the U.S., using tribal lands as a conduit where federal authorities cannot interfere. In exchange for a cut, Ray begins providing transportation to Lila on smuggling runs, requiring the women to drive across the titular iced-over St. Lawrence River, frozen solid by the deathly cold, in order to pick up Chinese and Pakistanis on the Canadian side. Ray restricts her participation to recouping the money needed for her family’s new trailer, but even that limited involvement throws her into jeopardy as events lead to trouble with the law and a violent confrontation with a criminal importing Chinese women as sex workers.

Frozen River earns its cinematic stripes as a straight drama, but writer/director Hunt goes deep under the ice in capturing the subtle cruelties imposed on down-and-out women and children whose dire poverty prevents them from catching the very break that might lead to opportunity. Caught in a common financing scheme designed to prey on the poor, Ray faces losing a sizeable deposit on the new trailer if she cannot come up with the rest of the money by a certain date. Once her husband takes off with the second half of the money, Ray must deal with a double hit that threatens to return her crippled familial enterprise to zero.

In Ray’s life, such an event is catastrophic, as her only legitimate means of scraping together funds is a crap job at the type of discount retailer that looks enviously upon the K-Marts of the world, a Dollar Store wannabe that has learned from Wal-Mart’s example of denying full-time employment to its workers in order to avoid providing health insurance and a living wage. Every morning is a challenge as Ray shepherds her sons through breakfast, getting dressed, and running for the school bus, pausing only to break the viewer’s heart with a quick search under the sofa cushions for their lunch money. As Christmas approaches, Ray struggles to keep their life raft afloat yet still has hope that she can find a way to get a single gift for her younger son, a race car set that he wants and she can ill afford.

Leo wears Ray’s lifetime of poor choices and bad luck like a mask of crow’s feet, bleary eyes, and pinched-mouth resignation, but there’s an iron-spined beast lurking under Ray’s frayed Goodwill castoffs. Like a plodding mill-wheel mule, Ray perseveres through sheer toughness, leavened with both the blind strength that comes from not knowing any other life and the ultra-modest hopes of tiny steps that might make life better for her family. Melissa Leo established herself as a gifted actor during her days as Detective Kay Howard, the only female detective among Baltimore’s murder police on NBC’s excellent drama “Homicide: Life on the Street.” Her film career has seen her essentially take ownership of this kind of role, as seen in her small parts in 21 Grams and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.

In an era when just about every major film studio has its own “independent” film division - irony generally being lost on Hollywood suits - Frozen River is the type of truly independent project that takes the quotation marks off the word. Despite its frayed, grey shoestring of a budget and spare production values, Frozen River went into a stacked 2008 Sundance field and emerged with the Grand Jury Prize for dramatic films, besting a slew of strong contenders such as Clark Gregg’s entertaining adaptation of the Chuck Palahniuk’s Choke, the stellar coming-of-age film The Wackness (which won the Sundance Audience Award), Rawson Thurber’s strong adaptation of Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and the engaging ensemble drama Phoebe in Wonderland. Now there is some chatter that Melissa Leo might sneak into contention for a Best Actress Oscar if the film can get its commercial legs under it. (The Academy should be so lucky.)

A few weeks ago the Boozehound Cinephile review of Shane Carruth’s Primer noted that, in spending a mere $7,000 to make his fine sci-fi drama, Carruth had “jabbed a sharp stick in the eye of every overpaid studio hack [responsible for] gargantuan projects that culminate in a huge dog turd.” While Carruth stabs at the face, Frozen River has arrived with a diesel-powered strap-on to go to work from the rear. While shame, or even self-awareness, is probably a foreign concept to the all-too-deserving targets of this figurative smackdown, there is satisfaction to be had in seeing yet more proof that money and hype have little to do with the craft of filmmaking.

Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who would leave his barstool only to stalk Whit Stillman, if anyone could find Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at [email protected]

Know What the Optimistic Mouse Said to the Elephant? "Take It All, Bitch."

Frozen River / Ted Boynton

Film | August 4, 2008 |

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