Achingly independent - one of those films that are meant to steer and manipulate the average Sundance festival audience into a 5000 fingered awed frenzy of chattering word-of-mouth advertisements - Courtney Hunt's Frozen River is nonetheless an often powerful, if not rather cliche'd, debut work. Though there is much photographic beauty in the film (an opening pan from ground to the teared face of the film's weathered protagonist chief among them) all somewhat reminiscent of the chilled melancholy of many an Eastern European cinema, the main reason this rather stilted and at times quite high-handed film soars as much as it does is the bravura performance of Melissa Leo as the aforementioned weathered protagonist, Ray.
Frozen River is the story of Ray, again played with a such a harried necessity by the wonderful Ms. Leo that one almost forgets the obviousness of the story, who is abandoned by her husband, who runs off with all their money just before Christmas and is left alone to fend for herself and their two children. Falling into the company of a bitter and lonely Native American woman, Ray inadvertently helps to sneak illegal aliens into the country from Canada. Seeing an opportunity to make easy (if not dangerous) money, Ray takes to this life of crime with trepidation but steely determination. The outcome I suppose is so obviously transparent as to nearly make the entirety before it a farce, but Leo's (dare I say) Oscar-worthy performance and Hunt's Tarkovskyian kino-eye make up for such glaring faults and turn Frozen River, achingly independent for aching independent's sake or not, into a film worth seeing. [10/11/08]