Cold hands, warm hearts
It could be called the Sundance Curse. Year after year, films win the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival only to disappear instantly when they finally hit theaters. This year’s winner, “Frozen River,” is just the sort of modestly scaled, finely acted, deeply felt drama that the festival once built its name on -- before the onset of hype, swag and buzz. Think of “Frozen River” as Sundance Classic. But can a classic break the curse?
Set in upstate New York near the Canadian border, the film tells the story of a woman named Ray (Melissa Leo), whose husband has disappeared after gambling away the money they were going to use to upgrade their home to a double-wide trailer. Desperate, Ray falls in with an outcast from the local Mohawk reservation, Lila (Misty Upham), who persuades Ray to join her in smuggling illegal immigrants across the border no man’s land of the frozen St. Lawrence River. Through their wary partnership, they come to realize they are not as different as they at first seem, and the bonds that begin to hold them together grow tighter and tighter.
The feature debut of writer-director Courtney Hunt, a graduate of Columbia University’s film program, “Frozen River” began as a short film with Leo and Upham in the same roles. At a time when films such as the blockbuster “Sex and the City” and the upcoming “The Women” present a female perspective based on consumerism, romance and the romance of consumption, “Frozen River” is a different kind of women’s picture.
“In film school, there was a lot of talk about how movies with mostly women characters lacked action,” Hunt said. “They tended to be chatty, talky and like a certain network I won’t mention. And I just thought that was kind of bogus, that there are plenty of women doing very active things, adventures, struggling. Real action is about struggle and conflict, and there’s no shortage of that in the lives of modern women.
“It’s just a matter of how you show it. You show it in a way that’s suspenseful and grabs you by the throat and the whole idea of ‘Frozen River’ was a very active setup, where they’re really taking a physical risk in order to accomplish something and to survive. To me that was automatically appealing and sort of disproved that theory out and out.”
A woman of substance
The feature was shot over 24 days in freezing-cold temperatures in Plattsburgh, N.Y. Conditions were so difficult that the crew began to refer to the production as “Frozen Feet” and cinematographer Reed Morano resorted to cradling the camera like a baby between takes to keep it warm enough to function. Asked to describe the working environment, Upham has a one word summation: “snot-sicles.”
With the role of Lila, there is the additional element that the character is a portrait of contemporary Native American life rarely seen onscreen. According to Upham, she knew the role was a breakthrough even when filming the first, short version of “Frozen River.”
“For the last 20 years, actresses who are native have been trying to get the break native men have already received,” she said, “the roles where you can break out of the leathers and feathers. They go to the men and the women are stuck in the background.
“That’s been the major fight, not only to get a leading role as a woman, but also to not be a Pocahontas-type talking to trees and whatnot, to have actual depth and character that adds to the movie. And this is the first time I’ve had a chance to play a character who actually has a personality, who has emotions and depth.”
And who isn’t all about being Native American. Hunt said when she was writing she realized that it was an unusual role, but didn’t want the cultural heritage of Lila to dominate the character.
“I let it serve the action,” Hunt said. “Whatever came up, came up. The less I tried, the better it was. If I was worried about it, it became self-conscious. If I just said, ‘This is something in her character, the things that she does that come from her culture, it’ll pop up.’ And it did.”
Perhaps also as unusual is the film’s portrayal of life below the poverty line. Though trailer-park living is most frequently used as the butt of jokes, in “Frozen River” the modest aspiration of upgrading to a double-wide is as real, vivid and valid as the thirst for opulent wealth so often portrayed as the American dream.
“People really bought into the small goal from the get-go,” Hunt said of the response to the trailer idea. “I think the stakes are in the crossing, the smuggling itself has pretty high stakes. So that keeps you compelled in terms of what happens. In terms of the goal, people accept it right away. Once you lay eyes on that single-wide trailer, you definitely are rooting for the double, for something better.”
While it may seem unlikely that the same audiences who turned out in droves for Carrie Bradshaw and Co. will also show up for a hardscrabble tale of two women trying to achieve their own simple, Manolo-free goals, “Frozen River” may nevertheless break the Sundance Curse. With a resolution that is inevitably heartbreaking and yet somehow affirmative, the film’s portrait of female friendship and struggle rings true.
“Lila and Ray not only don’t like each other and don’t understand each other,” Leo said, “they have no interest in understanding each other at the beginning of the film.
“What makes the film end on this note people don’t quite know what to call, not quite a happy ending, is that Ray has learned something and she becomes a better person because of her relationship with Lila. And that’s what the feeling of uplift is, that we as human beings try to be the best people we are capable of being. So it’s small -- and yet massive.”