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Culture Lust by Angela Carone

Singing the Praises of Melissa Leo and Frozen River

Melissa Leo in Frozen River (Sony Pictures Classics)

Frozen River is a film you should not miss in this flurry of Oscar films currently hogging, or clogging, San Diego screens.  It's far more compelling than The Reader , better acted than many of the films in contention, and grittier, in a more convincing way, than The Wrestler .  Melissa Leo is astonishingly good as Ray Eddy, a mother of two boys, whose husband has left her to feed his gambling habit, but not before swiping the mortgage payment on the family trailer.  The setting is upstate New York, on the edge of a Mohawk reservation, across the St. Lawrence river from Canada.  Ray meets Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), an equally poor and desperate woman, and the two begin smuggling illegal immigrants across the border - and the frozen river - to pay the bills.  Crime pays handsomely in this case, far better than Ray's gig at the Yankee Dollar, where she's fought unsuccessfully to become manager.  But obviously, there are risks:  border patrol, a particularly shady lot of colleagues, and, most unsettling, patches of black ice on the St. Lawrence. 

Frozen River is the debut film from writer/director Courtney Hunt and it won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance last year.  That's not surprising - it's the kind of social realism indie Sundance has been known to champion. As a writer, Hunt is quite good with dialogue, never overplaying it and understanding when an emotional wallop can play out visually - in her actors' faces and actions, and even in the landscape itself.  The austere, frozen landscape is there on the screen in all its flat glory.  It's never a comfortable landscape to take in, which lends itself to the immediacy of the film. And, to be honest, this isn't a comfortable movie to watch.  Where Slumdog Millionaire softens its brutal mileau with clever editing and camerawork, a dense soundtrack, and romantic sentiment, Frozen River's grim world just hangs there in the quiet cold. (Taking nothing away from Slumdog , it is a very well-made, commercial film)


Hunt deserves the most praise for casting Melissa Leo in the lead role of Ray.  You may recognize Leo from her role as one of the detectives in the television series Homicide: Life on the Streets.   In Frozen River , she is so good at being scrappy and determined, but wholly broken at the same time.  Leo gives Ray just the right amount of hard edge. Of course, Hunt helps out with a lot of character details, down to a small, crude tattoo on Ray's hand, possibly acquired years ago after a long night at the bar or to mark the loss of another no-good lover.  The camera doesn't linger on the tattoo. In fact, you could easily miss it, but when noticed it says so much about Ray's experience.  

Leo also never embellishes Ray's desperation, a skill Angelina Jolie could learn from ( see The Changeling ).  Leo has been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar this year.   I know she won't win because the Academy Awards is a mix of deserved recognition (25%) and popularity contest (75%).  Leo doesn't strike me as part of the Hollywood in-crowd, but in the tiny Culture Lust corner of the world, Melissa Leo is the deserved winner.  Also, check out what KPBS film critic Beth Accomando had to say about Frozen River.

Frozen River is playing at Gaslamp 15 in downtown San Diego.