Frozen River may be the most moving and relevant independent film this summer. It deals with single motherhood, immigration, and native peoples’ sovereignty in surprising ways. Frozen River presents characters we haven’t seen in situations we’ve never imagined. It bursts with compassion and humanity. But like many earnest and original independent films, it will need plenty of advocates urging audiences to see it.
Frozen River won the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in January. When jury chair Quentin Tarantino announced the prize for Frozen River, he said it “put my heart in a vise and proceeded to twist that vise until the last frame.” It is a riveting story of two determined women, forced by trying circumstances into smuggling immigrants into the United States. Melissa Leo stars as Rae, a working Mom, fighting off poverty with quiet fury. She longs to provide her kids with a new home. Misty Upham plays Lila, a Mohawk woman desperate to get her baby back. They become unlikely partners, traversing the frozen St. Lawrence river that separates the Canadian/American border.
Filmmaker Courtney Hunt has made a remarkably assured debut. Frozen River is taut, heartfelt, and authentic. She and the cast convey such compassion for the characters. It affirms single mothers struggling to pay the bills. It presents a complex portrait of Native Americans. It dignifies people who live in trailers, but strive for something more. Melissa Leo’s powerful, empathetic performance is Oscar-worthy. She burns with intensity amidst the snow and ice.