In "Frozen River," first-time writer/director Courtney Hunt takes great joy in Melissa Leo's face. Well, perhaps "joy" isn't the right word. Whenever Hunt places her lens on Leo's freckled, withered mug, it's often on the verge of collapsing -- just like so many things in the movie -- from plans, to families, to the titular body of water, to the film itself.
Leo is Ray Eddy, an upstate New York mother of two who couldn't be more in dire straits. Her deadbeat husband skipped out on her and the kids once again, this time taking the down payment money she had to upgrade her mobile home from single to double-wide. When she thinks she's tracked his car down, it turns out another trailer-living, single-mom-in-trouble, Mohawk Native American Lila (Misty Upham), is now driving it. (She says she "found" it near the bus station.)
With both of them being broke as a joke, Lila ropes Ray in transporting illegal immigrants, in the trunk of Ray's car, across the U.S.-Canadian border. It's a one-off deal that soon becomes a dangerous practice, especially considering they have to drive back-and-forth across a -- you wanna guess? -- frozen river during their smuggling excursions.
In the not-so-winter wonderland of "River," everybody is desperate. Even Ray's teenage son (Charlie McDermott) doesn't mind calling up old ladies and conning them out of cash. But Hunt is showing how desperation can bond the unlikeliest of unions, no matter what social or cultural background you come from. Leo's and Upham's characters barely know and trust each other (their initial meeting has them pulling the same revolver on each other). And yet, it's their troubled situations, for which each can sympathize with the other, that have them teaming up and taking on something that could lead to even more drama.
Originally a short film, "River" is that rarest of indie features: simple, sincere and irony-free. But it's also a film that tries to be miserablist when it's really optimistic, and naturalistic when its so obviously manipulative. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the second act, where Hunt literally toys with the audience's emotions and dangles a couple of young characters' lives in the balance.
But Hunt does get a good deal out of her actors, especially the two women front-and-center. Upham makes an impressive sight as a gal whose eyesight is so bad, she can't seem to recognize there's a huge chip on her shoulder. And Leo hasn't rocked this hard as an actress since her days on "Homicide." Her final, redemptive act in the movie's climax, a bold, harrowing move I didn't think this movie had in it, is what truly won me over.
When it's shaky and fragile in "Frozen River," it's Leo who makes sure everyone gets to terra firma.