Friday, September 19, 2008

Frozen River

“I didn’t know any other way to keep us together.”

Melissa Leo stars as Ray, a struggling mother of two (Charlie McDermott, James Reilly) just trying to get by in a small town in upstate New York, just across the border from Quebec.

When her husband takes off for Atlantic City with the final payment for her family’s DoubleWide new home she’s left without options.

A chance encounter with a Native American woman named Lily (Misty Upham) provides Ray a dangerous business opportunity to smuggle illegal immigrants across the Mohawk reservation into the United States.

The film, written and directed by first-timer Courtney Hunt, is a bleak story about love, family, and how far someone will go to persue their dreams. Leo and Upham carry the film with a pair of strong performances, and when the story movies away from their characters the story suffers.

As Ray falls deeper into the business she learns more about Lily and her reasons and rationale for transporting illegal immigrants over the border. Hunt has referred to this film as the story of mothers and their children.

In both Lily and Ray, and one family the pair drives over the frozen river, this theme is explored. Yes, it’s a film about smuggling people over the border, but it’s not really a film about immigration as much as it’s about what a mother will do to provide for her family.

Although much of the film works well, there are a few issues with how elements are conveyed over the course of the film. Although we root for Ray to earn her DoubleWide we’re never shown a reason for the need of it. The current home seems largely adequate on screen for the family and I was left wondering if the large amount of money tied up in this dream couldn’t have been better spent on necessities like food and clothes. Part of the problem is the location used wasn’t rundown enough to justify the overwhelming need of a change, and part of it is the dream, though nice, is like a low-income suburban housewife dreaming about her own mansion - it never seems practical.

Also troubling is how the dream of the DoubleWide is presented as a cure-all for all the family’s problems. Although I can see how Ray would believe this, the truth is this family’s problems run much deeper and the film never really punches a hole in this delusion.

And I have some logic concerns about the plot such as why doesn’t Ray seem willing to consider many easier and more rational methods of making the payment such as selling one of her cars, letting her son get a part-time after-school job, or looking to family and friends for help? If this Double-Wide is indeed Nirvana and the answer to their prayers doesn’t it seem reasonable to make a few compromises like this before jumping into a life of crime?

The film provides opportunities for from frank storytelling and gives the viewer a stark look at how those on the edge can rationalize an act. Although the ending provided in the film is responsible, it’s also a bit simplistic as the DoubleWide is seen to be the magic pot at the end of the rainbow. Even with my issues with Frozen River it’s an easy recommendation, though given the themes and emotions tied up in the script I expected a little more.

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