The film, about two poverty-stricken women (played by the understated Melissa Leo and the even more understated Misty Upham) who smuggle illegal immigrants across the northern U.S. border, forces viewers out of their comfort zones for 97 minutes, dredging every miserable detail out along the way. It fails only in its persistent spoon-feeding of hardship, its condescending reminders of the characters’ dire circumstances.
Leo plays Ray Eddy, a white woman with two sons who faces desperation after her husband, a gambling addict, runs away with their savings. With every dejected squint of her eyes, Leo’s convincing performance makes the audience feel bad for Ray — real bad. She conveys Ray’s difficult situation without overacting; what she holds back makes her character sincere and recognizable. It’s easy to sympathize with Ray because she shows both strength and weakness.
Upham plays Lila, a Mohawk woman separated from her 1-year-old son. Under the pretense of helping her sell her car, Lila cons Ray into helping her smuggle illegal immigrants across the border. Upham’s quiet but bold performance veils her character’s struggles beneath a calm and in-charge persona. Unlike almost every other detail in “Frozen River,” Lila’s misery is not over-exploited. Upham lets her character’s background and circumstances speak for themselves.
The two women form a partnership founded not on amity but on circumstance. Both women try to provide for their families and, faced with poverty, derive bravery from necessity. They make poor decisions, but because it’s easy to sympathize with them, the audience does not view them as bad people.
In “Frozen River,” the sky is always overcast. It opens by immediately giving an intimate and captivating view into the dismal life of Ray and her two sons. But those captivating moments at times also work against it. In one scene, Ray tries not to cry as she puts on makeup, mascara nearly running down her face before she puts the brush down. In another, Ray nervously digs for change for her sons’ lunch money. Pathetic scenes roll by again and again.
And the suffering never stops. Ray can’t get promoted to work full-time at Yankee Dollar because her boss is sleeping with another employee. Lila has poor vision but refuses to get glasses because they make her “car sick.” A shot of the “Welcome to Mohawk Land” sign appears before every cut to Lila’s trailer. The “DANGER” sign is emphasized before the women cross the frozen river. The film apparently doesn’t trust the audience enough to sympathize with the characters, so it exploits their situations to the point of absurdity.
The overuse of blatant metaphors incites a few eye rolls. The metaphor of the frozen river as a dangerous bond between women/cultures/nations begs to be picked apart and shattered. While the story itself stands strong, the frozen river metaphor, reminiscent of something pretentiously dissected in a high school lit class, only weakens it.
“Frozen River” gives insight into a world often neglected by films and keeps the audience rooting for untraditional heroines. It just tries a little too hard sometimes.