The 2008 film, Frozen River, tells the story of two desperate mothers.
Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) has spent two years working as a clerk in a discount store and still cannot convince her boss to promote her to full time because, in his opinion, she’s just not “long-term employee” material. Ray’s husband, a compulsive gambler, has vanished and taken the majority of their money with him. Ray and her two sons live in a mobile home, where they subsist on a diet of popcorn and tang. Every few days, a man comes by and threatens to repossess the home and leave Ray and her children homeless. Ray always manages to talk him out of it. If there’s anything that Ray can do, it’s talk her way out of trouble.
Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham) is a Native American who lives on the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation and who works at a bingo parlor. Because Lila is struggling financially and often resorts to illegal means to make ends meet, Lila’s mother-in-law has taken away her infant son. If Ray’s defining characteristic seems to be her ability to talk her way out of trouble, Lila is quiet and often seems to be hiding from the world.
One day, while Ray is out looking for her husband, she spots Lila driving his car. Lila claims that she found the car, sitting deserted at a gas station. (It’s never established whether Lila is telling the truth or if she actually stole the car.) Ray discovers that Lila makes her money by smuggling undocumented immigrants over the Canadian border and Ray soon joins her.
Frozen River takes place a few days before Christmas in Upstate New York. There’s snow on the ground and a Christmas tree in the mobile home but there’s little holiday cheer to be found in the film. In order to smuggle people across the border, Ray and Lila take them across the frozen St. Lawrence River and, just like the ice on the river, Ray’s occasional moments of happiness seem to be destined to only be temporary. Just as the ice is eventually going to break, so is Ray and Lila’s operation. One gets the feeling that it’s only a matter of time. Ray and Lila almost immediately attract the attention of the stern State Trooper Finnerty (Michael O’Keefe). Significantly , Finnerty’s suspicions are initially limited to only Lila and he even tries to warn Ray that she’s hanging out with a known smuggler.
Frozen River is dominated by two strong lead performances. Melissa Leo is the one who was nominated for best actress but I actually think that Misty Upham (who tragically died a few years after this film was released) is even better. Leo is the one who gets the big scenes and who gets to deliver all of the best lines and she does a great job with a richly written character. Upham, meanwhile, has to largely create her character in silence. She rarely speaks but, when she does, she makes it count. When Ray and Lila get pulled over by Finnerty and Lila snaps that Ray will be okay because she’s white, the way Upham delivers that one line tells you so much about what has led her to be in her current situation. When you see Upham in the background, watching Ray or Finnerty or anyone else who is standing in the way of her seeing her baby, her glare is worth a thousand monologues. Both Leo and Upham are so good that they hold your interest even when the film’s script and direction veers towards the heavy-handed. (Director Courtney Hunt, for the most part, does a good job of keeping things credible but it’s hard not to roll your eyes a bit when a duffel bag being carried by two refugees turns out to not contain, as Ray originally suspects, explosives but a baby instead.)
Frozen River was a hit at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize. Leo went on to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, though she lost to Kate Winslet in The Reader.