Frozen River (2008)
The artistic vision and the thematic depth surpasses the technical achievement in this indie film by first-time director/writer Courtney Hunt. The story is about two struggling mothers in North Country, New York: a 40-something store clerk with two kids who have been abandoned by their gambling husband/father, and a 20-something Mohawk from the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation who is trying to make ends meet and get her one-year old son back by trafficking people from Canada into the United States over the frozen St. Lawrence River.
Filmed in often lacklustre lighting with a DV camera and a generally poor sound production, Frozen River doesn't attract much more interest than a home video during its prelude. But Courtney Hunt's struggle to find decent financial backing to her brilliant script cannot hamper the heartfelt and deeply compassionate nature of her story. She probably will relate to what her two female protagonists are going through in trying to make ends meet, after running around trying to make executives watch the short film on which this final full version is based.
Melissa Leo, Misty Upham and Charlie McDermott form the dramatic focal point in a film which grows stronger and more convincing as the plot unfolds and the performers and the filmmakers get into their stride. The remarkable aspect about the dramatic effect of Frozen River is that it doesn't derive from any sort of display of emotion. On the contrary, it comes from the lack of such display. Even when the two women seem to have caused a person's death do they refrain from emotional outbursts. Do they seem cold? Yes, but they act the way they do out of necessity; a person only has so much compassion to give. It is the lack of emotional width in Ray and Lila's relationship which ultimately makes it so powerful.
There is flair in Courtney Hunt's work here - both her writing and her direction. She doesn't overdo it, but keeps it all nice and tidy. And she knows how to stop too, which is often the problem with indie films in this genre. Had she been able to up the level of craftsmanship and get rid of some technical impairments and some meagre acting from the supporting performers, Frozen River would have been a standout.