Frozen River (review)

The stories of women are so disparaged — or worse, ignored — in our culture unless they have something to do with pleasing men, but here’s one that demands to be seen. The first feature from writer-director Courtney Hunt — and winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance, among other festival awards — this is a frank and unrefined tale of women doing what it takes to survive, particularly when dominant, male-centered cultures have abandoned them. Two days before Christmas, Ray Eddy (the extraordinary Melissa Leo, who first made us take notice of her on Homicide: Life on the Street) finds herself coping with the sudden absence of her gambler husband, who has absconded with the money she’s been carefully hoarding to upgrade her little family — which includes her sons, 5 and 15 — to a double-wide trailer. When she encounters Mohawk Native Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham, also riveting) — who’s been deserted, in a way, by her husband, too, and then afterward by Mohawk values that esteem sons over daughters — the two fall into a moneymaking scheme to ferry illegal immigrants by car across the deep-frozen St. Lawrence River that creates the U.S./Canadian border in northern New York State. Fascinating is how Hunt’s story straddles moralities, gender motivations, and ideas of poverty and despair in such a way that you’re not sure, by the end, what’s “right” and what isn’t.

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