Frozen River
Written and directed by Courtney Hunt

Starring Melissa Leo, Misty Upham


Frozen River

I've always felt that the short story is more akin to a feature film than a novel is. Somehow there's so much to be compressed or elided over or even omitted when a novel is made into a film (and I'm talking here about novels of substance) that unless the adaptation is a brilliant one, there's always the question of what's been left out in order to come in at an hour and a half or two hours. Whereas with a short story (think Annie Proulx's "Brokeback Mountain") there's instead the room to let scenes play out when needed, to let events happen at their own pace. Obviously it's not a hard and fast rule, but it seems to work even when the script was written just for the film and didn't come from a previous incarnation.

All of the above comes from seeing the quiet yet starkly powerful film "Frozen River," which never leaves the area of the Mohawk reservation that straddles the U.S./Canadian border near Massena, New York. Ray (Melissa Leo), who lives near the reservation, has been saving up for a double-wide trailer, but her husband, whom we never see, has taken the money and disappeared to gamble with it. Ray has two kids, T.J., who's fifteen; and Ricky, who's five. It's almost Christmas and Ray, who works part-time at the Dollar Store, has no money even to buy Christmas presents for the kids. For supper, all she can make them is a dinner of popcorn and Tang.

She meets Lila (Misty Upham), also a single mother and a Mohawk, who smuggles aliens into the United States across the frozen St. Lawrence River. Lila picks them up from a Quebecois, drives across the river, and deposits them at a motel on the U.S. side. Like Ray, Lila is also wounded: she has had her own baby taken away at birth by her former mother-in-law and now can't get him back.

Ray meets Lila when she tries to steal Ray's husband's car because it has a pop-top trunk in which to smuggle the aliens. She tells Ray how much money there is to be made and Ray, with little choice, joins her as a smuggler. The film is about what happens to the two women from that point on. But more than that, writer-director Courtney Hunt has given us the whole lives of these two women as we get to know them just from watching them at work. And we learn as much about relations between whites and Indians, about Ray's son T.J. and his desire to help out his mother by looking for a job. There is a richness to the portraits of the two women that makes "Frozen River" so compelling. It's a small film and yet it contains much of the world.