Thursday, January 1, 2009
Frozen River **
Director: Courtney Hunt
Cast: Melissa Leo, Misty Upham
Charlie McDermott, James Reilly, Michael O'Keefe
There is something disturbingly didactic in the way Courtney Hunt's debut feature film approaches its story and audience.
Dealing with issues deemed important by the so called independent movement, the results are nothing if selfconscious.
Melissa Leo plays Ray Eddy, a desperate woman with two children (McDermott and Reilly) desperate to make ends meet in order to pay for her new trailer and stuff the stockings for Christmas.
Her husband has disappeared, which isn't a first as we learn and has taken with him most of their savings (giving the story the first of several of its dramatic inconsistencies).
"Luckily" Ray meets Lila (Upham), a bitter Mohawk woman who smuggles illegal immigrants through the Canadian border (specifically through the title river which is an unchecked point).
Reluctantly they form a team, Ray has the car, Lila has the people to smuggle, they both have the need and from here Hunt does her best to deliver a film that touches the human spirit while making an important social denounce.
But what "Frozen River" has in its intentions it completely lacks in execution. It exploits its indie-ness and turns it into a selling point; watch how the gritty realism and rawness it aims for comes off merely looking stagey and cheap.
Hunt doesn't really fare better in her screenplay which boasts facile symbolism and works around coincidences that only help turn the wheels of her plot.
It's obvious that a writer's job is to put action into motion, but not if the viewer is fully aware of why everything is happening in such and such way.
The story's proximity to the Christmas holidays isn't accidental, it's supposed to make us feel worse about the characters, but how can we when the same screenplay is also terribly condescending to the racial minorities it thinks it's protecting.
Ray is essentially a racist who at one point believes two Arabic looking people she's smuggling are "the kind that blows things up" and there is nothing wrong with this, since it makes for a far more ambiguous dramatic arch, but Hunt throws in an unexpected element set to change Ray and make her more human.
What it does is turn her into the white savior who has a chance at redemption if she proves how much she's willing to sacrifice as a mother.
Instead of wondering what makes people like Ray commit crimes, Hunt settles for an afterschool special about illegal immigration and how to be good to them.
It's good that Leo turns in such a good performance, even if she knows she's at the service of such a lazy plot, she makes Ray's suffering become evident on a skin level.
Yes she's practically a single mother and yes she's doing her best to look after her kids, but what Leo gets away with is making us root for someone who's not only a racist, but also a criminal.
Nothing else in the film lives up to her performance.