Frozen River

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frozen river
Great performances from Melissa Leo and Michael O’Keefe.

Sometimes a movie like this will bother me for two reasons. It’s an indie film, and the kind that can give indie films a bad name. The other thing that bothered me is that it reminded me of my dad. I was 4-years-old when he left my mom. I had an older brother, and my mom was pregnant with my sister. We went on trips to the welfare office with her. My dad didn’t pay child support and was nowhere to be found. Yet instead of my mom having to drive across a frozen river for dangerous endeavors, we were in sunny San Diego. And three years later, she married our mail man. It doesn’t always turn out well like that, but I remember that first year as a child being scared. And missing my father.

This is the story of a single mother in upstate New York that starts smuggling illegal immigrants into the U.S. from the Canadian border, hoping to make enough money to live. She’s working at the Yankee One Dollar Store, and it’s a few days before Christmas when her husband splits with all their money. He was supposed to go to Atlantic City for the final payment of their dream mobile home. Ah, so many trips to Atlantic City that people make with different intentions. Since he splits, she ends up surviving on my diet when reviewing movies – popcorn and Tang.

The ice thickens when a little Indian girl named Mohawk Lila Littlewolf shows up. She’s played by Misty Upham, and was a very interesting character to watch. Most filmmakers would’ve made this the perky, cute girl with all the answers. This girl is masculine looking, very quiet, and unusual in many ways. Her scheme is buying cars from local lots to use to smuggle illegals into the U.S., but her tribal elders disapprove. These two become an unlikely team in making extra cash in this very dangerous way.

Melissa Leo has a star-making performance. Along with her great role, I was pleasantly surprised to see Michael O’Keefe. As a kid in 1980, I liked him in Caddyshack and The Great Santini. I saw him briefly in Michael Clayton, and it’s good to see him again as the state trooper (younger generations probably remember him more as a husband – to Jackie on Roseanne, and the real life husband of singer/guitarist Bonnie Raitt).

The first half of this movie is powerful and an interesting character study. The second half was full of contrivances and flawed logic in many of the actions the characters had. First time writer/director Courtney Hunt did a great job of producing a powerful indie film, but it’s so dark, it might be tough for this to find an audience.

It’s also interesting that, unlike when you’re watching Thelma & Louise and rooting for them the entire time – these characters are flawed people. Isn’t that sometimes a breath of fresh air when watching a movie? Having an internal struggle with how I feel about people on screen is far more challenging than the usual movies that spell everything out for you and tell you who to root for.

I found some of the way they handled illegal immigration and the American Indian to be a bit preachy. The script was also underdeveloped.

That being said, I still have to recommend it for the powerful performances and original story. It gets a B-.

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