Friday, March 13, 2009

Frozen River

Independent (Indie) films face an uphill climb. They can’t wow us with special effects or engage us with great actors. They can’t adapt bestselling novels. They don’t have the budget. Instead, they must offer an original voice or performances filled with honesty or take us into unfamiliar cinematic territory.

Frozen River playing April 2 as part of the Cinema 100 Film Series offers all of the above. It’s not a great Indie film, but it certainly has a lot of what it takes.

Spanning a few days before Christmas and set in a small town on the border between New York State and Quebec, Frozen River tells the story of recently single mom Ray Eddy. She is struggling to raise two boys and has wild dreams of buying a double-wide trailer house, keeping their flat screen from being repossessed, and getting her younger son the hot wheels car set of his dreams.

Her minimum wage job of course makes all of these hopelessly, well, hopeless. Fortunately – or unfortunately – they live on the edge of a Mohawk reservation that spans the border between the two countries, a border marked by the frozen river of the title.

This narrow strip of land, and perilous strip of ice covered water, offers a lucrative side occupation for those desperate enough to take advantage – human smuggling.

Okay, I’ll pause for a moment. The plot for Frozen River is one of its weaknesses. It is predictable and has some ridiculously contrived passages, the most egregious involving a young couple and their baby. It also contains some acting that has an amateur, regional theater quality.

These are all just part of the low budget Indie game though and easily forgivable here, for two reasons. Frozen River has a wonderful sense of place and Melissa Leo gives an amazing performance as Ray Eddy.

The film’s frozen world of desperate people living in rundown trailers and driving beat up cars feels painfully lived in, authentically heartbreaking. Maybe it’s the winter we’ve been going through, but I identified with every ice-covered twist and turn of the dark country roads. I shivered when Ray was called outside in her robe by a police officer. I felt the icy draft from a bullet hole in a camping trailer door.

This is a key responsibility of an Indie film lacking the money to take us somewhere dazzling or exotic. It must instead take us somewhere believable and identifiable. Forget sets and fancy effects. I’m talking taking cameras into real diners and asking real waitresses and real patrons to please become actors for an hour or two.

And that is just how Melissa Leo comes across. She is so worn and frazzled and working-class tattooed that she feels like someone found, accidently, as the cameras were about to roll. Her body is a topographic map of hard living and sleepless nights and too many dinners of popcorn and Tang. She is simply a marvel.

While many of the actors around her struggle with the range of emotional notes they are asked to play, Leo glides through Frozen River – scene after scene – like a master. She sneaks up on you and makes you weep. I highly recommend the movie for her performance alone.

It is one of the Motion Picture Academy’s most sparkling accomplishments that it recognized and plucked this diamond out of a mound of otherwise ordinary, everyday stones. Melissa Leo would have earned my vote for the Best Leading Actress Oscar.

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