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Frozen River (8/10)

by Tony Medley

Now, this, my friends, is a movie! It was shot on a Sony Varicam, the high end of digital cameras, in 24 days in Plattsburgh, New York in the dead of winter on the frozen desolation of the St. Laurence River. Although the story is fiction, it is based on real life women who make money to support their families by smuggling illegal immigrants into the country across the river from Canada.

Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) is a struggling mom of two sons, 15-year-old TJ (Charlie McDermott) and a 5-year-old. Her husband, never seen, has run away with all her money. She has a part time job at a convenience store but her manager wonít make her fulltime. She wants to buy a prefabricated home in which to raise her two sons, but canít come up with the money.

She meets Lila (Misty Upham), a Mohawk Indian who lives on the Reservation and is trying to get enough money to get her 1-year-old son back by smuggling aliens into the country through the Reservation. Ray reluctantly teams up with her because Ray has the car and Lila has the know-how.

Written, directed, and shot on a miniscule budget by Courtney Hunt, there isnít a glint of humor in this film, but it captures Thoreauís dictum that ďmost people live lives of quiet desperationĒ  as well as any film I can remember.

Every waking second of Rayís life is a struggle for survival for herself and her sons. Making it worse is TJís disapproval of virtually everything she does. There are no bright spots in Rayís life. She just goes from one crisis to another, dealing with each as well as she can. This is a bleak, compelling film. Even though both Ray and Lila are clearly breaking the law, Hunt brings to their stories a grudging sympathy for what they are doing. The acting is superb. Both Upham and Leo bring such credibility to their characters that it just doesnít seem as if they are acting. This looks like a documentary.

The cinematography captures the bleakness of their lives by the lighting and locations. This is filmed in color, but I remember it in black and white, it is so stark. Leo and Upham give remarkable performances. Iíd nominate them both for Oscarsģ, along with Hunt for both directing and writing, but, since this is a low-budget indie, donít hold your breath.

This is a small, independent film that must be seen to realize its value. If you like movies and appreciate the craft, you will rarely see a better made film. Although I left the film emotionally drained, I felt exhilarated from seeing such an exceptionally well-made film.