Frozen River

****

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Frozen River
"Although it is an actual river which divides the two countries, Hunt aims to explore societal divisions that run much deeper than that."

Everything about Courtney Hunt's debut feature is a little bit unexpected, right down to her central protagonists, Ray (Melissa Leo) and Lila (Misty Upham). Ray's hubbie, who we learn has a chronic gambling habit, is in the wind with the cash she's saved to move them and their kids TJ (Charlie McDermott) and Ricky (James Riley) to a bigger trailer home, while Lila - who lives on the local Mohawk reservation - has had her baby 'stolen' from her by her mother-in-law since her husband died. Rather than slipping them into neat little stereotypical boxes marked 'white trash' and the Native American equivalent, Hunt takes time to flesh out the breadline battle they are both facing.

Ray's kids may be living on popcorn till payday, but she's desperately trying to keep the family unit going, refusing to entertain TJ's ideas of quitting school early to contribute to family funds. When a desperate search for her husband takes her to the local Reservation, she sees an unknown woman driving off in his car and follows. The 'thief' is Lila and, before Ray knows where she is, she finds herself complicit in a people-smuggling scam that Lila has going - transporting illegal immigrants in the boot of her car across the frozen river of the title - which separates Canada from the States ("They won't stop you," says Lila "You're white."). This uneasy fellowship is based, not on peace, love and understanding - each woman is deeply prejudiced against the other - but on the very real need to make a quick buck by Christmas.

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Of course, easy money has a tendency to slide into easy trouble and it isn't long before the women's awkward collaboration sees them skating on physical as well as metaphorical thin ice.

Although it is an actual river which divides the two countries, Hunt aims to explore societal divisions that run much deeper than that. Here there is no easy solidarity to be shared between these women of the underclass, while law enforcement - also split between State Troopers and Reservation Police is equally unwilling to cross boundaries. As for the migrants, their American dream is made to look shaky from the outset, when even those born and raised Stateside can barely scrape by. There is also a delicate consideration of the hinterland of grey which exists between right and wrong - while Hunt is careful not to justify what the women are doing, she doesn't judge them for it either.

The landscape - cold, unremitting, bleak - mirrors the situation the characters find themselves in as home becomes less a safe haven than an additional millstone round their necks.

Skating between thriller and character/social drama, Hunt has created a women's movie with backbone, fleshed out by terrifically steely performances from Leo and Upham, who manage to convey the intricacy of the women's decisions despite the sparse dialogue which underpins the film. This is gripping at a visceral level - taking you way beyond concerns of whether the women will get caught. Praise must also be given to the young actors Riley and, particularly, McDermott, who perfectly captures that adolescent deep desire to help at any cost, while not fully understanding the implications of what is going on. This may, look like just another solid genre piece on the surface but there is a river of complexity here if you're willing to tap into it.

Reviewed on: 15 Jul 2009
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Two women enter an uneasy partnership to smuggle illegal immigrants from Canada to the US.
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