November 20, 2008


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Frozen River (R)
Melissa Leo is a woman with no money and a lot of bad options for keeping her family afloat in Frozen River, a wonderfully downbeat movie about poverty and smuggling in upstate New York.

Melissa Leo is one of the great underappreciated actresses of the past few decades. She shined as the tough Kay Howard on Homicide and makes just about every movie or TV show she appears in instantly better and more credible with her presence. She can look quite pretty but more often than not she’s the face of hard times and it’s in these situations that she really shines.

Here, she’s Ray Eddy, a mother of two who wakes up about a week before Christmas to find that her gambling addict husband has taken the stash she’s hidden to pay for the first half of their double-wide. She and her kids must watch as the delivery man drives the house away. Ray, teary when she’s alone but steady in front of her kids, has little hope of finding the $4,000-plus she needs to get the house to come back. Go look for Dad, her teenage son TJ (Charlie McDermott) says. He’s long gone, Ray says, but she tries anyway, finding his car in a bingo hall parking lot on the local Mohawk reservation and following home the young woman who drives it away.

It turns out that Lila (Misty Upham), the woman in Ray’s husband’s car, isn’t harboring Ray’s husband — Ray gets that much out of her after shooting a hole in her trailer. Lila thought the car was abandoned after the owner got on a bus. As Lila’s home is on a reservation, calling the cops won’t do Ray much good, but Ray’s got a gun so Lila suggests a deal: drive her over the river (still in the reservation but on the Canadian side of the St. Lawrence River) to a friend’s house. He’s a smuggler and there they will pick up two Chinese men and some money. Deliver the men safely to the next leg of their journey (back in the U.S.) and the women will get another wad of cash. Ray is unsure but Lila tells her don’t worry, you’re white, the troopers won’t stop you.

This initial outing is not a friendly partnership — Lila and Ray take turns holding Ray’s gun on each other — but Ray soon realizes that her part-time job at the Yankee Dollar isn’t going to get her the house or toys for youngest son Ricky (James Reilly). Meanwhile, Lila has an infant son who her mother-in-law has stolen away. She’s working up the gumption and the cash to take the boy back.

The movie has a darkly wry sense of humor about all this. Ray is rather xenophobic; she gets hinky when one set of passengers is Pakistani — making an assumption about what they’re carrying with them that has heart-stopping consequences. But she also seems mystified when she learns that people spend $40,000 or $50,000 for their illegal trip to America — $50,000 for this, she asks as her old car goes up a snowy bank and back toward her economically depressed town.

Likewise, Lila has a tough-girl act on the outside but she also seems a bit beaten down. And the moments when she gets to just look at her son convey how badly her hopes have been crushed by reality. Both of these women have rough exteriors that hide their disappointments and broken dreams.

No good choices — this is how the movie begins (with a desperate Ray crying and smoking when she’s realizes her money is gone) and sort of how it ends. Frozen River gives a suspenseful plot to what is a very common and rarely dramatized situation — poverty. Sure, the scenes of her cautiously driving across what she hopes is the frozen river have you on the edge of your seat but the scenes of her trying to convince her kids that popcorn is a suitable dinner have just as much harsh bite.

Frozen River is smart and unsentimental in its portrayal of these very genuine-seeming characters who keep you completely captivated by their story. A-

Rated R for some language. Written and directed by Courtney Hunt, Frozen River is an hour and 36 minutes long and distributed in limited release by Sony Pictures Classics. The movie runs through Thursday at Red River Theatres and will play at The Music Hall from Friday, Nov. 28, through Thursday, Dec. 4. The movie is scheduled for a Jan. 27 DVD release.