The survival instinct driving the protagonists of “Frozen River” gives rise to respectable thrills and some unforgettable female-condition and poverty drama as two cash-strapped mothers team up as smugglers to give their kids better lives.
Credit goes to first-time writer-director Courtney Hunt and her extraordinary star for this standout indie.
A Sundance pleaser, the film lacks the domestic-dysfunction element generally associated with that distinction and instead features characters too truly desperate to sputter in self-pity.
Case in point is Ray (Melissa Leo), a hard-bitten mom struggling to raise a teen (Charlie McDermott) and a 5-year-old (James Reilly) on a part-time cashier’s salary in a run-down trailer in an icy pocket of upstate New York.
After her gambling husband vanishes with the money she’s saved to buy a double-wide, Ray hooks up with Lila (Misty Upham), a young Mohawk smuggler who’s helped herself to Ray’s husband’s abandoned car at the reservation’s bingo
Lila, too, has child issues and needs cash.
Despite cultural and personal frictions that initially result in gunshots, the women join forces. Together, they transport undocumented immigrants in Ray’s button-release trunk from Canada into the United States over the frozen St. Lawrence.
As a thriller — a Christmas Eve job turns nasty; a trooper gets suspicious — the film is decent but standard. When the women, planning to go straight, decide to do just one last job, you know they’ll wind up on thin ice.
An added curve involving a Pakistani couple embarrassingly overplays the motherhood card.
But overall, this is a powerful look at perseverance and vitality amid potentially crushing hardship. Hunt serves up a wealth of credible, affecting characters and predicaments.
Both a poverty slice and an intimate drama, the film presents a compelling picture of how desperation alters morality boundaries and of how brave and extraordinary mothers can be, ranking with “The Deep End” in the latter regard.
The scenes between the women are so engaging that you can forgive, and even embrace, the implausibly feel-good tone Hunt eventually adopts.
Leo, meanwhile, who’s usually a supporting player, is sensational in the role of Ray, creating a multi-dimensional protagonist who commands your consideration, earns your emotional investment and sticks with you perhaps forever.
With a face that radiates struggle and a general nature that transcends good or bad labels, she’s as challenging and satisfying as any character you’ll find on screen.