Frozen River
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Golden Mug


Best Actress (Melissa Leo)

Theatrical Release Date: 08/01/2008
Director: Courtney Hunt
Cast: Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, Charlie McDermott, Michael O’Keefe, Mark Boone Junior

2008 wasn’t a very good year for lead actresses. There were only a handful of roles with appreciable complexity and attention – the reasons for which would take too long to go into and have nothing to do with “Frozen River”, a small film about a mother forced into smuggling illegal aliens across the U.S./Canadian border in order to provide for her family.

Melissa Leo takes center stage here and proves yet again what a tremendously underrated talent she is. Her character struggles to do right but is caught in-between a gambling addict for a husband and a local Native American (Misty Upham) whose own demons have placed her in a similarly desperate situation. The tenuous relationship between Leo and her eldest son (Charlie McDermott) is also a constant factor.

Leo and Upham, hostile towards one another from their initial meeting, forge an uneasy union and start pocketing quick cash from taking pairs of mostly Chinese immigrants in the trunk of their car across the frozen river that stretches along Mohawk tribal land spread out over both U.S. and Canadian territory.

Both women provide powerful performances, mixing real and fake bravado in with copious amounts of fear, desperation and understanding. While there are other characters to the film, most notably Charlie McDermott’s character, the film is primarily about these two women coping with their deeds and their goals.

While the performances are exceptional, I unfortunately didn’t really connect with the film. Maybe it’s a guy thing, though many of my friends will laugh off that idea, but I never found myself able to fully empathize with Leo or Upham. It’s a tragic tale but none of my own experiences lend themselves to completely understanding their plight.

Director Courtney Hunt did a nice job of keeping Leo front and center but at the same time but I think more could have been done to heighten the suspense of driving across the frozen river as warmer temperatures began to creep into the area. Also, while maintaining a drab composition to all of the shots was probably a mix of budget and tone, I would have like a few shots of the natural beauty to be found in upstate New York that weren’t directly related to how fascinating the idea of driving across a frozen river can be.

Still, fans of independent cinema and anyone looking for excellent female roles in 2008 should give “Frozen River” a look and I’m going to give it a 3 out of 5. It’s a shame the film was released back in August because it will make it harder for Leo’s performance to vie for any awards not taking place in a beach side tent near L.A. (The Independent Spirit Awards), but she should hopefully still be in the conversation over the next couple of months.