Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Frozen River: what goes around...

If you think times are tough, then make sure you see Frozen River to put life in first world society into perspective. It is the story of two women who put their lives and freedom on the line for their children. Melissa Leo’s stellar performance was nominated for an Oscar as Best Actress in a Leading Role. Hollywood doesn’t have many good roles for women of a certain age but the independents keep finding them.

This story is set on the U.S./Canada border. The St.Lawrence River runs through a Mohawk reservation when it isn’t iced-over, dividing New York State and Quebec Province. Leo plays Ray Eddy whose husband has skipped off with the little money they had to indulge his gambling addiction. She is a middle-aged mother of two boys whose one ambition is to buy a “double-wide” trailer home for them. Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham) is a young Mohawk widow who wants to get back her baby son.

People smuggling creates their partnership and cements their friendship. Together they brave the ice, the underworld and the police to pay for their dreams. This is a film about the under-class: not the superficial stereotypes of trailer trash and indolent indigenous, but individuals, with all their idiosyncrasies, barely surviving even in good economic times.

Apparently the filming was completed in 24 days on a Panasonic Vericam. Ironically it’s now a Sony Classics Picture. It’s another independent movie that outshines most of its rich Hollywood cousins. Writer/director Courtney Hunt has given us a well-structured script that is tightly realised. There is nothing quite like being short of money to focus the mind. It’s certainly true of our protagonists, even if they do make a number of shaky choices.

Hunt deals with several controversial issues including border protection, refugees, the war on terrorism and tribal culture. Not to mention personal and legal responsibility. If you think her treatment of these themes has simple political correctness, then look more closely. As the women tread outside the law they maintain their own strong personal morality. But don't expect Thelma and Louise. There is no glamour in a convertible here. They'd freeze to death.

A couple of examples will no doubt rile those who see these issues in black and white. Most of the illegal aliens are Chinese. Ray doesn’t feel right about smuggling Pakistanis, with almost fatal consequences. She’s not even sure where Pakistan is but she does not want to chance trafficking terrorists.

Ray’s 15 year old son T.J. steals credit card details from a Mohawk woman to get money for a Christmas present for his little brother. His punishment by the Tribal Patrol is to apologise face to face to her. Full stop.

Throughout the film he spends time renovating a pedal-driven carousel. It had very distant echoes for me, of the 1956 film of Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical Carousel. It is about an unemployed father-to-be who gets killed committing a robbery to help finance his child’s future. What goes around?

You’d better move fast to catch this one at the cinema, which it deserves.

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