One of the most talked about movies that no one has heard of, Frozen River arrives on DVD on Tuesday, just in time for audiences to get a peek at the Oscar-nominated performance by star Melissa Leo before awards are handed out at the end of the month.
Frozen River follows Ray Eddy (Leo), a mother of two boys who lives in a trailer on the New York-Canadian border. On the verge of buying a larger home, her husband runs off to gamble away their money, leaving her nearly broke and without any presents for her family. In her pursuit to find her husband, she comes across his car, which has been picked up by a local Mohawk woman named Lila (Misty Upham). While they are first at odds with one another, Ray discovers that Lila could be a great source of revenue: the woman is involved in an illegal immigration smuggling operation that ships people from Canada through the nearby Mohawk reservation. Like all illegal activity, however, her actions soon become dangerous.
The picture is a well-acted little drama with a superb screenplay and a unique, believable story. Both Leo and Upham turn in strong performances, though Leo, understandably, dominates. She brings a rugged toughness to her character, making it possibly for the story to work. Most mothers who are struggling to pay their way usually don't resort to smuggling people from one nation to another, but Leo's Ray boldly - and at the same time reluctantly - does what she has to do. Given the great female performances of the year, it's understandable why Leo is being recognized among the best.
Upham also brings surprising sincerity to her role, though it is clear she doesn't have the same acting chops. She's a little raw around the edges, but, then again, so is the movie. Frozen River is a character drama that never feels small; one would expect to see a screenplay like this turned into a picture starring more bankable stars. Writer/director Courtney Hunt has made an incredible directorial debut; there is no question that she will be in demand for years to come. Unlike other debut films, her style doesn't seem forced or clever for clever's sake; the film is simple, yet dynamic. Nonetheless, it too feels a little rough and raw around the edges; there's no one element that can describe this, but Frozen River lacks an emotional center - or the one it has isn't developed enough to matter. It is still engaging and moving, but not as powerful as I was expecting. The climax is marginally suspenseful, but not as captivating or memorable as an Oscar-nominated film should be.
Frozen River marks a terrific debut for writer/director Courtney Hunt, and is one of the better movies of 2008. It isn't as overpowering as it could have been, but still works on most levels.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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