Frozen River

Dir: Courtney Hunt, 2008. Starring: Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, Charlie McDermott. Drama.
Frozen River

Neo-realism is having a bit of a renaissance within the American indie film world of late. Perhaps as a reaction to how Hollywood has all but ignored the working poor - or the just plain destitute - for decades there’s a new interest in stories about how middle Americans are coping with increasingly dire odds to surviving in a country where manufacturing jobs have left en masse to be replaced by meth labs and fundamentalist Christian churches. There’s a hopelessness about our future that has been encroaching for decades—wage stagnation, the credit crisis, the decline of labor unions, and the housing bubble are all symptoms of the decline of our much mythologized way of life. These new stories feature white, non-urban females in the lead roles. They have been deserted by deadbeat males who are overwhelmed by the stark realities of poverty.

The American Dream used to mean owning your own car and home and having a few vacations now and then. At some point it came to be synonymous with the tacky, greasy exploits of the Donald Trumps and P. Diddys of the world. Is it any surprise that economic mobility is harder to achieve than ever even as gross shows like Keeping up with the Kardashians are still pulling in viewers desperate for a fix of escapism? I think this is the most confusing time in this country since I started paying attention and I have no idea where things are headed. I think this national malaise is making us hungry for stories about people struggling to keep from losing everything. They are people who make up a majority in this country and their voices are seldom heard.

Just as Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich’s scathing expose of the service economy, gave voice to people barely making ends meet so, too, does the film Frozen River depict a way of life familiar to all too many Americans. Melissa Leo, in an Oscar-nominated performance, plays Ray Eddy, a mother of two kids; one a sullen 15-year old boy and the other a much younger boy living in upstate New York. We don’t know much about Ray but we know enough to infer the hard luck times she has endured. Her husband, a gambling addict, skips town with the money for a new trailer that the family was counting on. Ray is only getting part time work from the discount store in her town. She is a woman out of ideas, just barely holding things together, and suffering all of the humiliations that come with being broke. She is trying to keep the creditors at bay long enough to make a plan. Melissa Leo, an actress I had not heard of prior to seeing her as Ray, gives an unforgettable performance. She earns our empathy and this includes her decision to become an operative in an international human smuggling ring. She’s in a desperate situation fighting for her life and her kids’ lives.

The film is about a period of several days at Christmastime wherein Ray and her partner in crime, Lila Littlewolf, attempt to make enough border crossing smuggling runs for Ray to earn the money for her new trailer. It’s an edge-of-your-seat thriller, but it’s also a moving story about two women ignored by society attempting to protect what little they have in the world. The moral quandaries of what they are doing hang there but Ray doesn’t have the luxury of wondering too much about it. She doesn’t have a choice.

I hope we get more films like Frozen River. We need stories about the economically downtrodden no matter where they are from. They are stories that most people can relate to right now. At their best movies help us to think about our lives in new ways and we desperately need more movies to make sense of this bleak time in our country. With films such as Wendy & Lucy, Winter’s Bone, and Frozen River having all been released in the last couple of years there is clearly something happening in independent film; a turn toward realism that has injected a new vitality into American film.


Frozen River was nominated for 2 Oscars: Best Actress (Melissa Leo) and Best Original Screenplay (Courtney Hunt).

Posted by:
Jed Leland
Nov 16, 2010 5:42pm
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