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From the Roundtable: Frozen River

Feeling weary of splashy summer movies? Try Courtney Hunt's debut Frozen River, a moving film about two desperate women who take to border smuggling.

FrozenIn the dog days of summer, writer/director Courtney Hunt makes a defiantly wintry debut with Frozen River. The film begins with two cold and unforgiving shots: a wide shot of the St. Lawrence River at the New York/Canada border and a tight close-up of a middle aged woman inhaling deeply from her cigarette outside her humble trailer. The river, where most of the film’s action will soon take place, is already frozen over. The woman, Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo), is agitated and shivering. Times are hard. Her economically depressed life hasn’t been a great source of warmth.

We meet Ray at a particularly vulnerable moment: her husband, a gambling addict, has disappeared again. She’s desperate for cash for the down payment on a new doublewide trailer she hoped to purchase for her two young sons. A solution may appear when Ray meets a Mohawk girl, Lila, who lives on a nearby reservation. Lila, Ray discovers, is part of the smuggling culture at the U.S.-Canadian border. The two women form a chilly and tentative bond as they smuggle immigrants across the frozen river in Ray’s car. The work is relatively easy—albeit illegal—and it’s more lucrative than anything else in their hard knock lives.

River, on the other hand, which won the Grand Jury prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival, wasn't an easy film to make; in fact, it's the result of a nearly-ten year process. On a recent press tour, Hunt said that she spent years getting to know the smuggling culture before she felt confident enough to write the screenplay. Then came the long struggle for funding. “Contrary to popular mythology, films take seven or eight years to make,” she stated. “The industry was not going to help me," she said, remembering her "make it happen" realization. “The public money wasn’t available to me—it’s not a documentary. I was going to find this money myself or it wasn’t going to happen.”

Time and again in conversation, Hunt emphasized the need for filmmakers to accept responsibility and stay true to their creations. Talking about the finale, she returned to this notion and stressed that the ending changed from her original drafts: she had to stop getting in her own way. “I tried all kinds of things and then I realized about the end… it’s going to be what it tells me it is. In the last draft I listened to the characters,” said the director.

She kept listening and dismissing off-track advice. Couldn’t there be more men in the film?  Couldn’t she get a star to play Ray Eddy? Hunt's perseverance paid off. The film’s unique story of smuggling and awkward race relations is refreshingly new ground for a feature. The sensitive performances, particularly Leo’s, help the film immeasurably.

LeoLeo—a character actress previously best known for work on television’s Homicide: Life on the Street and for her small but potent role in 21 Grams (the latter had significant Oscar buzz)—credited the lived-in quality of her work to Hunt’s screenplay and even to the film's long journey to the screen. “It’s not that we practiced or rehearsed. We never even had a table read. But there’s something when an actor has the information for a long period of time. It sort of filters into you in a way.” She shrugs off suggestions that it must have been terribly unpleasant to shoot in the cold. She used it. “The weather was part of Ray’s life. It was just another thing that actually added to the performance.” 

This pragmatic attention to detail is evident in the performance. There's some sneaky humor in Ray, too. “I hoped and hoped that people would laugh at Ray’s stupidity and narrow-mindedness," said Leo. Despite this harsh assessment, it's clear that Leo had great fondness (and a lack of judgment) for her character: "I knew what she was saying...When you’re inside of something, if you’re feeling angst about that person, it doesn’t help playing it. I was perfectly aware that Ray Eddy is a narrow-minded woman. I think that’s a good thing to show people.” 

River could prove a shock to moviegoers with its quiet steady look at real, desperate people. Normalcy can feel downright alien in today’s multiplexes, overflowing with masked superheroes, glamorous label-loving New Yorkers, animated pandas, and robotic trash collectors. Thankfully, River is blessed with a humanizing and heat-generating star turn from Leo. Her much-heralded performance is already generating Oscar talk. “It feels quite delightful,” the often under-utilized actress admitted. However, like her director she stays focused: “Am I thinking I’m going to get an Oscar? No. I’m thinking, ‘That’s good publicity!’ ”

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