Misty Upham and Melissa Leo in Frozen River.
This was a riveting movie to watch, well-written and directed by Courtney Hunt (a first time feature filmmaker at 44). I found it also to be disturbing in several different ways.
Frozen River is a genuinely independent film made for less than a million dollars (raised from business acquaintances). Developed from an earlier short film, it was sold to Sony Classics before Sundance – where it won a major prize. The central character is Ray (Melissa Leo), a working-class woman living with her 5 and 15 year-old sons in a decrepit trailer. Her husband, a compulsive gambler, has just absconded with the money saved up for an upgrade to a superior home. Ray sets off to find him between shifts at the local discount store. The trail leads to a Bingo Hall on the Mohawk territory that spans the US-Canadian border. When she sees her husband’s car being driven away by a young Mohawk woman, she gives chase. The upshot is that Ray is sucked into the ‘people trafficking’ across the border which has replaced cigarette smuggling as an earner for some members of the Mohawk community.
As well as gambling and people trafficking, the narrative takes on issues of parental control and the deprivations of trailer park life. It certainly isn’t Hollywood, but still there is a kind of happy ending. In a way this was a relief after a couple of harrowing incidents in the story when I could hardly bear to look at the screen since tragedy seemed inevitable. I’m still trying to work out if this was a cop-out or whether I have read aspects of the film wrongly. As we’ve noted in other posts, it is rare to get contemporary American films that deal with working-class life. It’s even rarer to get films like this written and directed by a woman and with a central focus on two women from outside the norm of Hollywood leads. There has been lots of (justifiable) praise for Melissa Leo, but I would want to also praise Misty Upham as the Mohawk woman. I’m very supportive of the film in lots of ways, but . . .
The problem I have with the film and especially with the happy ending is really to do with the politics of American working class culture. I confess that as a middle-class European it’s sometimes hard to fathom. Let’s begin with the central family in the film. There is some interesting discussion on IMDB as to whether this is a middle-class family brought down in the world by the husband’s gambling. There is generally a view that a ‘poor’ family shouldn’t be watching a large rented TV and eating junk food. Against this, Ray is shown to be a mother who wants her children to go to school and do well (i.e. she isn’t ‘irresponsible’). I wasn’t sure about the actors (real cousins) who played the two sons – they seemed very articulate and ‘well-educated’. So, am I falling into a trap in expecting a stereotypical portrayal of kids who live in a trailer park? To be fair, the film offers believable, non-stereotypical police officers and other characters, so perhaps I ought to read the children as they are written. I can’t say too much about my major concern with the film without giving away the plot, so, SPOILERS ahead, I’m afraid.
Ray is driven by the need to find the money for the new house – in the couple of days before Christmas Eve. Driving illegal workers over the frozen river and across Mohawk land evades the immigration controls. She’s seemingly unconcerned by the Chinese in her boot (trunk) but freaks out when a Pakistani couple turn up, yelling that she doesn’t know what a ‘Paki’ is (the term used by the Mohawk woman) and then saying that she doesn’t know where Pakistan is and losing it completely because the couple might be carrying bombs or something. Is this what American working mothers are like? A woman who seems rational at other times can’t distinguish between frightened illegal immigrants and an Al Quaeda cell? Or is this just my false perspective?
Following this, Ray acts quite callously and only seems to care about her kids’ Christmas presents. Not so terrible perhaps, but we now have her classed as suspicious of other cultures – which goes against the believable portrayal of the two women, white and Native American who are slowly drawing together after beginning on a level of mutual animosity. Lila, the Mohawk woman is an interesting character, streetwise but not as assertive as Ray at first. She also has a small child who she has ‘lost’ to her mother-in-law after her husband’s death. In a possibly metaphorical move, she eventually buys some glasses to improve her poor short-range vision. The ending of the film sees Ray make a sacrifice which effectively ‘saves’ Lila and her child. It was this volte-face by the woman who could treat illegals as terrorists that I found a bit hard to take. I’m mindful of Nick Broomfield’s film Ghosts in which Chinese illegals drown in Morecambe Bay when their gangmaster allows them to work in unsafe conditions. People smuggling is often a dangerous business that ends in tears – see our discussion of Farewell China. The film seems to focus on the white-Native American relationship, but to ignore the illegals who somehow seem less than human (they have no dialogue as such). I’m interested to hear what Americans think about this aspect of the film – and Canadians, who are also ‘absent’ apart from the Quebecois who organises the smuggling. Wouldn’t all these illegals be better off taking their chance in Canada?
Info on Courtney Hunt was gleaned from an interview on the Huffington Post and the film’s press kit available here.
It’s great that Melissa Leo should get all this attention. I’ve been a fan since Homicide – Life on the Street. In this movie she looks like a real person and not a movie star. Writer-director Hunt is adamant about her commitment to showing a working-class woman on screen. According to an interview in New York magazine, Hunt herself was brought up by a single mother and took her early inspiration from Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
I hope the film does well – and creates discussion about race and class in contemporary America.