Two days before Christmas in rural upstate New York, Ray Eddy’s husband has left her in an impossible situation—not only is he gone, but he has gambled away all of the family’s meager savings. Ray’s single wage at the Yankee One Dollar Store can’t make the house payment, and the situation forces Ray to feed her two sons popcorn and Tang every day. When Ray strikes out to search for her husband, she encounters Lila Littlewolf, a tough, street-smart Mohawk woman who is dealing with her own struggle to make ends meet. But Lila has found a way to do it—smuggling illegal immigrants into the States. The tribal elders disapprove and attempt to stop Lila by forbidding anyone to sell her a car. Ray has a car, and although the two women don’t trust each other, they team up and share Ray’s Dodge Spirit to make a run across the frozen St. Lawrence River.
Courtney Hunt’s remarkable and deeply emotional first feature is a realistic look at the world of human smuggling and the difficult choices facing poor, single mothers. A wonderfully directed film full of atmosphere, heart, and outstanding performances by Melissa Leo and Misty Upham, Frozen River is ultimately about the strength that resides in family and the way hope in a dire situation can be uncovered by courage and trust.
When her husband runs off with the payment for their new home, Ray (Melissa Leo, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada) turns to crime to keep herself and her two sons afloat. A chance encounter with Lila (Misty Upham, Edge of America), an equally desperate young Mohawk woman, leads Ray to smuggling illegal immigrants by driving across the frozen Hudson River onto tribal land. But with every trip, things go wrong in small and not-so-small ways, until Ray finds herself pushed into a more desperate corner than ever before. Leo delivers a gritty, restrained, but richly compelling performance; her raw face, beautiful but worn down by life, radiates a weary defiance. Frozen River has scenes as tense as any Hollywood thriller, but so grounded in the fully developed characters of these two women that the taut suspense grips the full spectrum of your emotions. This is an impressive debut by writer/director Courtney Hunt, featuring excellent supporting performances by Charlie McDermott (The Ten) as Ray’s unhappy oldest son and Michael O’Keefe (The Great Santini) as a suspicious state trooper. —Bret Fetzer