The holiday season can be rough for a lot of people, especially when it comes to financial problems. Bills, food, presents, and the occasional emergency can all add up to start emptying the pockets of even the most well prepared people. Throw in a couple of kids and little to no income, and the situation can quickly become dire. At times like this, morals begin to break down and a parent may question how far they would go to provide for their children. Frozen River, a debut film from writer/director Courtney Hunt, tackles this subject with an incredible amount of skill.
Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) has a part-time job at the local dollar store and two kids to take care of. Her gambling addicted husband has disappeared with the families savings that were to be used to buy a new double-wide trailer to replace the small, run down trailer the family currently lives in. There are only a few days left until Christmas, she has no money to pay the bill for the trailer, her rent-to-own television is being repossessed, and the only thing in the kitchen is popcorn and Tang. Despite her situation, Ray refuses assistance from her teenage son, insisting that he stay in school instead of trying to get a job.
While attempting to track down her husband and his car, Ray meets Lila Littlejohn (Misty Upham), a Mohawk Indian woman who lives on the reservation that straddles the United Stated – Canada in Upstate New York. Lila leads Ray across a frozen river into Quebec under the pretense of knowing someone who would buy her husband’s car for a tidy sum of cash. Upon arriving, Ray is tricked into smuggling illegal Chinese immigrants across the border, back into the states. While she is ethically troubled by what she has done, Ray soon decides that the money garnered from smuggling is the only hope she has of providing for her children. Over time, Ray learns that Lila is in a similar economic situation and is trying to earn enough money to reclaim and care for her 1-year-old son that lives with her step-mother.
The film is extremely detailed and realistic in its portrayal of a downtrodden population in a mostly rural, desolate area. It is beautifully shot and the performances from the two leads are award worthy. While certainly not a traditional holiday film, it uses the backdrop of an impending Christmas holiday to enhance the desperation felt by the characters. It might sound like a downer, but this is highly recommended for a thoughtful story of parents pushed to extreme lengths for their families.