A woman on the edge of despair, abandoned by her husband.

Her two sons—a teenager toying with crime, and a youngster glued to the television.

A young Mohawk woman in trouble with her tribe, who is losing her eyesight and grieving for her lost child.

Dangerous crooks offering wads of cash for volunteer smugglers of illegal aliens.

And a vast, frozen river that may as well be marked with a flashing neon sign: "SYMBOL! SYMBOL!"

Yes, Frozen River has everything you'd expect to find in a winner of the Sundance Film Festival's Jury Prize. It has tormented characters, "gritty" performances, cultural commentary, and a powerful sense of place (upstate New York, the St. Lawrence River, a Mohawk reservation). And while all of these elements are impressive, they fail to cohere into a satisfying whole.

Melissa Leo as Ray Eddy

Melissa Leo as Ray Eddy

Courtney Hunt's film is about the many trials of Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo), whose husband Troy has absconded with the family's down payment for their soon-to-be-delivered doublewide home. Running out of money, Ray becomes desperate for a promotion at her Dollar Store day-job. She needs to put something better than popcorn and Tang on the dinner table for her two boys, T.J. (Charlie McDermott) and Ricky (James Reilly). Their family dreams look likely to crumble.

As if things aren't bad enough—T.J.'s favorite toy is a blowtorch, and he's involved in a credit card scam. And little Ricky dreams of finding a fancy set of Matchbox cars under the Christmas tree so that he can stage spectacular collisions.

Ray's furious pursuit of her husband leads her into an unexpected partnership with Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), a distraught Mohawk woman who makes quick money by smuggling foreigners across the border from Canada into the U.S. Lila's got problems of her own. She's been kicked off the reservation for "spoiling" one of the tribe's beloved sons. Now she spends her days huddled in the fragile warmth of her own tiny trailer, pining for her baby who was "stolen" by the mother of her irresponsible ex. Unable to afford glasses for her deteriorating eyesight, Lila turns down office work because she can't read. The smuggling network offers her quick cash and survival, but it's risky.

Misty Upham as Lila

Misty Upham as Lila

Ray, whose blind spots include sharp-edged racial prejudice and a carefree way with handguns, reluctantly joins forces with Lila. Together they creep back and forth across the frozen St. Lawrence River by night, stowing immigrants from all over the world in the trunk of Ray's Dodge Spirit (SYMBOL!). As cops on both sides of the border close in, Ray and Lila, the most desperate female partners since Thelma and Louise, find themselves on very thin … um, well, you get the picture.

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The Sundance jury is consistently impressed by movies about ordinary people under extraordinary pressure. Think back to You Can Count on Me with Laura Linney's manic single mother; American Splendor with Paul Giamatti's cynical cartoonist; the three women in crisis in Personal Velocity: Three Portraits; the quiet grace of a glamour-free Ashley Judd in Ruby in Paradise; or even Frances McDormand's first turn with the Coens in Blood Simple.

This year, the jury embraced Melissa Leo, that beautifully broken presence who stole scenes in 21 Grams and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. It was only a matter of time before Leo was given a chance to unleash her remarkable powers in a leading role. And this turn is sure to earn her more opportunities.

Lila and Ray take desperate measures

Lila and Ray take desperate measures

Frozen River begins with a close-up of Leo's face, a magnificent ruin, as she tries to draw some relief from a cigarette. Her angst-filled expression would be enough to send a lot of moviegoers heading for the doors, thinking, Oh, no. Another insufferably morose indie drama. But Leo makes Ray's trouble arrestingly genuine—the two tears that spill simultaneously from her eyes capture us with the sense that this is a real person in a real moment of crisis, and she's won our hearts immediately.

Unfortunately, the rising tide of contrived crises swamp what began as a strong character study. When the film resorts to familiar, lurid, TV-thriller antics—like a gunpoint confrontation with a crime lord in a strip joint—we begin to see that Ray is much more dangerous and irrational than we thought. And when Ray throws out the luggage of some Pakistani stowaways, fearing that they might be terrorists infiltrating the U.S., suddenly the movie raises questions about post-9/11 paranoia, which only dilutes the film's thematic focus all the more. Ray's erratic behavior, not to mention her quick trigger finger, make us begin to understand why Troy ran away in the first place.

The film's pivotal scene—set on Christmas Eve, when dreams will either come true or crumble into ruin—threatens to turn this story into a sentimental holiday pageant. But the film has done nothing to raise questions about faith or hope in any higher power, so the dramatic turn seems like just another emotional provocation.

Director Courtney Hunt on set

Director Courtney Hunt on set

It's a shame, because Ray and Lila are intriguing, complex personalities, from strikingly different cultures, side-by-side in a fascinating environment. Leo and Upham perform with compelling subtlety. But Hunt has too much on her mind, and she hurries us from one trauma to another. What is this film really about anyway? The burdens of single motherhood? Poverty? Family values? The plight of Mohawks divided by a border? War-on-terror paranoia? Racism?

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That's not to say the film is without suspense. The scenes of late-night smuggling are nerve-wracking. When a frozen river provides the centerpiece for a story, everybody knows what's coming—it's only a matter of when. But in spite of this film's admirable strengths, it's a grim and humorless tale that feels like a strain even at 97 minutes. Its bleak, dispiriting aesthetics only make things worse. In spite of a hopeful conclusion, viewers are likely to walk away with several new worry lines etched in their foreheads, and even non-smokers may pat their pockets in search of cigarettes once they get outside.

We need serious-minded movies about family, culture clashes, crime and punishment, and compassion. And we need films that give us three-dimensional characters like Ray and Lila. Independent filmmakers often provide a healthy alternative to those Hollywood confections about beautiful people who find shortcuts to Happily Ever After. But audiences can be just as easily misled by raw, grueling tales set in a world devoid of beauty, joy, humor, and grace. The chill of Frozen River is so unpleasantly relentless that it's likely to leave viewers dispirited, numb, and wondering what to make of it all.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Ray and Lila both seem cornered, stuck in impossible situations. How are their situations similar? What is appealing to them about the prospect of smuggling illegal aliens?
  2. Is there ever a time when breaking the law is appropriate? Are there concerns, like Leo's family troubles, that are more important?
  3. Writer-Director Courtney Hunt says, "I wrote this film after learning about women smugglers at the border of New York state and Canada who drive their cars across the frozen St. Lawrence River to make money to support their kids. The risk involved compelled me to write a story, not only about smuggling at the northern border, but also about what life circumstances would lead someone to take such chances. What I discovered was that a mother's instinct to protect her children is more powerful than any cultural, political or economic boundary line." What does the film reveal about maternal instinct? Are mothers justified in taking desperate measures to take care of their children?
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  1. If you were in Ray Eddy's situation, would you take the smuggling job? What steps would you take for your family?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Frozen River is rated R for some language. The film portrays desperate people responding to crisis with profanity, violence, and expressions of racial prejudice. While this is honest and realistic—desperate people do behave desperately—viewers may wonder if all of this ugliness amounts to a meaningful, redemptive story.

What other Christian critics are saying:

Frozen River
Our Rating
2½ Stars - Fair
Average Rating
(not rated yet)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
R (for some language)
Directed By
Courtney Hunt
Run Time
1 hour 37 minutes
Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, Charlie McDermott
Theatre Release
September 05, 2008 by Sony Pictures Classics
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