Frozen River, written and directed by Courtney Hunt and produced by Heather Rae (director and producer for Trudell), is a story about crossing boundaries. Two single mothers cross ethical boundaries by smuggling Chinese and Pakistani immigrants from the U.S. to Canada via a hazardous road of ice through Mohawk land; neither woman wants to be involved, but neither feels she has a choice. One must feed and house her children despite being robbed by her husband, who has abandoned his family to pursue a gambling problem, and one, a widow, must try to win her stolen child back.
In Frozen River, we’re asked to cross racial boundaries as well. The film takes a courageous position, portraying a relationship between a Native American woman (Lila, played by Misti Upham) and a white woman (Ray, played by Melissa Leo) that is devoid of gratuitous sentimentality and is more often than not combative. Courageous, because Hunt has written a story that gives no easy breaks to white Americans or Native Americans—the film illustrates both problems and rewards associated with either culture, which makes it a natural target for those more comfortable with the patronizing or glorifying perspective so often portrayed in contemporary cinema.
Take, for example, the role of Jimmy (played by Dylan Carusona); Jimmy is a player in human trafficking, asking few questions about the fatalistic trade of human life, yet he shows compassion for Lila, understanding the financial and legal pressures she is under. His role is to help her, if opportunistically, despite the moral imperatives of the tribe, which doesn’t approve of smuggling.
And finally, the film traipses numerous boundaries of the individual: At what point do we accept abuse, and at what point do we resist? When must we protect the interests of ourselves and our families, and when do we risk such security for others, or for integrity itself? At what point do we admit we’re wrong, and at what point do we begin to make amends? What propels us to cease to be victimized by the past, and what initiates a new investment in the future? What does it mean to be Native, and what does it mean to be American? The questions the narrative evokes are endless and are raised organically in the film, so that one feels as much (if not more) engaged in considering and answering the questions as informed.
The acting in this film is phenomenal, and the story is unforgettable and refreshingly complicated. When asked what inspired Hunt to write this film, she explains that as a resident of the area (i.e., the Mohawk reservation between New York State and Quebec), she was familiar with the smuggling going on there—and compelled by the situation of all of those involved, from the Mohawks to the surrounding white communities to the immigrants who risked all to come to North America, even when it means long-term and often abusive indentured servitude.
The film is a striking contrast to the Sundance film I recently reviewed, Just Add Water. The comparison is, perhaps, unfair—Just Add Water is a comedy and Frozen River is a dramatic feature (too often, the cultural value of comedy is overlooked by critics and drama is overweighted, in my opinion). Yet moving directly from a film that condescended to poverty to one that portrayed it in all of its complexity and specificity called to attention the role of filmmaking: Are we invested in communication between parties at odds or are we interested in underscoring simplistic stereotypes for polarized ends? As a film-seeped culture, are we interested in cinematic visions of empathy or in cementing stratified notions of inadequacy?
Just Add Water contributes new vocabularies to the U.S. diaspora. In a poignant scene, Ray’s son T.J. (played by Charlie McDermott) is confronted by tribal police who have traveled off-reservation to confront T.J. for stealing and selling an old Mohawk woman’s credit-card number. T.J. stole the number only to help his family inch out of utter desperation: he wants his little brother to eat more than popcorn and Tang for dinner, and he wants him to have a present under the Christmas tree—a possibility that is out of reach for a family living on the income of a woman with a part-time job as a clerk at a discount store--at least, one that has been robbed of nearly five thousand dollars of savings. As I watched, I feared for the boy, even as I was angry at him for victimizing the woman. I waited for T.J. to be hauled off by authorities to begin a life of jailtime. But that’s not what happened. The tribal officer seemed to understand the politics of poverty—of desperation—when he asked not for retribution but simply for an apology. T.J., the officer said, had “done a bad thing” to Ms. Three Rivers, and he was asked to tell her he was sorry. He muttered that single word, “sorry,” and the officer and woman, apparently satisfied, drove away. This reminds me of a scene in Little Big Man, when Old Lodge Skins (a Cheyenne leader played by Chief Dan George), explains how his people would gain revenge on a nearby tribe: rather than shooting one another, men would tap enemies with long sticks to humiliate them. The narrative seems to ask at a critical time in our country’s history, What is the glue is that binds nations and peoples within nations—is it tolerance or is it revenge? Is it understanding, or is it ignorance? Let us hope that the majority of us believe in the former: tolerance and understanding are key to shutting down the machinery of oppression and division.
Inspired by this plotline, I asked Director Courtney Hunt whether this and several other instances of unrequited foreshadowing were part of an overall narrative strategy. Not only were we given cues that T.J. was doomed, we were led to fear that T.J. would start a house fire that could have burned all the family had—including T.J.’s little brother, yet the house didn’t get on fire. The safety of a road passing over and iced river was brought into question, yet the drivers never fell through the ice. Hunt responded that it wasn't a strategy, per se, but a reality; that is, when you're poor, you live on the edge. Your life is always surrounded by risk and potential for escalation from bad to worse. Whether through conscious strategy or integral realism, this film is not only courageous with content, it is courageous with form—from unrealized foreshadowing to blurry lines between protagonist and antagonist to multiplicity in perspectives. This is the kind of courage I look for in cutting-edge film.
The only critique I have of this fantastic Sundance film is that I wanted more. I understand that the narrative couldn’t have continued another hour, but I would have watched it through a dozen more hours--contentedly (given water, a blankie in Frozen Park City, and a ladies' room). I wanted to hear more about the people who were taken across the border. How does the backstory of the Pakistanis differ from the backstory of the Chinese? Where were they going? Were they willing parties? Would their families at home ever hear from them again. Without hearing more of their stories, I felt they appeared accidentally dismissed, though clearly this was a consequence of time limitations, not a flaw in sensibility.
The quality of the film, however, is such that I don’t think we’ll be seeing a sequel. I will be fantasizing, however, that the story continues, perhaps for a TV format. I trust that a woman who tells an interracial, international story without patronizing “the other” would find equal amounts of strength, empathy, and intrigue in telling the tales of those who cannot escape servitude as she would in telling the stories of Lila and Ray. I’m so happy to hear that Sony has just purchased North American rights to Frozen River. I believe this film is due a great deal of attention. Watch for truly stellar performances by a great cast, and watch for Courtney Hunt as her career as a writer/director takes off.