Frozen River is a difficult movie to pigeonhole — and that's meant as a compliment. Writer and director Courtney Hunt's debut feature is a bracing reminder that independent film once existed as a defiant middle finger to cultural hegemony.
She takes a cold, hard look at two difficult women who would never describe themselves as disenfranchised. What they are is seriously angry — chafing at the limitations imposed on their lives by men, facing grinding poverty with a defiant sneer, and stubbornly holding on to the belief that, if there's one thing they can do, it's make things better for their children.
Shot on location in rural upstate New York, Frozen River is as stark and bare-bones as the winter landscape. Early on, when Hunt is introducing the bleak outlook of Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo), there are awkward moments, the marks of a director's first film. But the movie gains assurance as the story gains momentum, and by the time Ray steers her sturdy Dodge Spirit onto the frozen St. Lawrence River with Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham) riding shotgun, it's clear that Hunt is leading the audience into uncharted territory.
Ray and Lila are unlikely allies, and their initial meeting is filled with raw hostility. But what Hunt constructs is an unsentimental symbiotic relationship, where each uses the other to acquire what they need. They become smugglers, a link in the chain of human trafficking, taking illegal immigrants (from China and Pakistan) across the river from Canada to the United States in the copious trunk of the Spirit for $600 a head.
The experienced Lila even convinces Ray that, despite active patrolling of the area by law enforcement, there are no borders here because land on both sides belongs to the Mohawk Nation. It's a message Ray's anxious to hear, a way to justify her actions after she's left broke and bereft by her husband, who absconded with the funds for the well-insulated, double-wide trailer Ray promised her two sons.
Hunt's greatest strength is not judging her characters. They exist at the basic survival level, yet still reach out for more despite their diminished expectations. Justice here is metered out in fines and time served, with no accompanying sermons.
In tone, execution, and climate, Frozen River is the anti-summer movie, a blast of frigid air making the question of what's right or wrong as murky as the dirty snow.
Shows at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.