If Melissa Leo were Charlize Theron with artfully applied bags under the eyes, an Oscar nomination would surely be forthcoming (Update: Leo has been nominated for Best Actress. -Ed.) for her terrifically truculent turn as Ray, a single mother of two boys who reluctantly teams up with an equally struggling Native American, Lila (Misty Upham), to smuggle illegal immigrants across the U.S.-Canada border. Like many first features that began life as shorts and were shot over two weeks with a Varicam, Frozen River can make for ragged viewing. First-time director Courtney Hunt has astute visual command of the dreary landscape that frames these womens struggle to survive, but the slathered-on pathos and abundant use of thin ice as a metaphor made me wince, and the movie careens uncertainly between gritty realism, sudden bursts of melodrama, and inspiration. Too many bad things happen, then too many good things, and I started taking bets with myself on the precise arrival time of the flowering female solidarity between these two tigresses risking all for their cubs. That Rays automaton hardness has its limits goes without saying, or Frozen River would never have been picked up by Sony Pictures Classics. But what sticks in the memory is the unnerving lack of basic safety that comes with living on the financial edge for these women, which ultimately forces them to take untenable risks.
Jan. 30-Feb. 5, 2009