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Breaking the Ice

Audiences and critics warm to Frozen River


Ray Eddy sits in her bathrobe in the passenger seat of her car, her bare feet in the snow, chipped polish and dirty fingernails clutch a cigarette and wipe away a tear as she stares into the empty glove compartment, a space that just hours before held a hard-earned, long-saved balloon payment on the family's dream home: a double-wide trailer.

So opens Frozen River, the critically acclaimed Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury winner for Best Picture, and director Courtney Hunt's debut at the helm. Shot on location in the dead of winter in northern New York state, the film, which has garnered an earful of Oscar buzz, centers on Ray (Melissa Leo), a part-time clerk at a dollar store and now single mother of two boys—15-year-old TJ (charmingly played by Charlie McDermott, whose credits include M. Night Shyamalan's The Village) and 5-year-old Ricky (cherubic James Reilly)—and Lila (Misty Upham), a Mohawk Indian whose 1-year-old son lives with her deceased husband's family.

In searching for her missing money and her estranged husband, Ray finds his car in the parking lot of a high-stakes bingo parlor. Chasing the driver of the car home, she meets parlor worker Lila and unwittingly becomes involved in Lila's main source of income: smuggling immigrants in the trunk of a car from the Canadian border, across the iced-over St. Lawrence River into the United States. With two hungry boys at home, Christmas not far away and the trailer payment deadline looming, Ray takes the driver's seat in the pair's relationship, finding the reward of the easy money worth the risk of being forever lost, either in the freezing waters of the St. Lawrence rushing just under black ice or crushed in the grasp of the law.

Heather Rae, the Boise-based producer of the film, said Frozen River has enjoyed a roughly four-month run in New York and has been playing nearly that long in Los Angeles. Both Leo and Upham were on hand with Rae for the Boise premiere of the film last Thursday, as well as for Q&A sessions following Friday and Saturday night screenings.

Leo is a fine actress as her 30 years in the industry attest. During her career, while perfecting her craft, she has clearly learned much about the ins and outs of making a film. With a look that expresses both intensity and warmth, and a voice laced with intelligence and experience, she explains that the weeks or months spent on the set are a minor part of making a film.

"I work with a lot of student filmmakers ... a young filmmaker goes into it not realizing having written a script is [only] one step," Leo said. "Then you have to gather together not only a cast of characters to play the parts, but all of those players [directors, producers, cinematographers, etc.] to do it."

And a film isn't finished when the actors are.

"The post-production on this film cost far more than the cost to make the film," she said.

In the end, a filmmaker may have a finely made, fully realized movie. But it still needs to find its way in front of an audience. Leo said a very common path for an independent film to travel toward the goal of distribution is film festivals, the zenith being Sundance where Leo initially met Rae and introduced the project to her. It was at this year's Sundance where the powers that be from Sony Classics saw the film and scooped it up, giving it the distribution that many a small film will never see.

Much of Frozen River's appeal, not only to Rae and Sony but also to audiences and critics, rests on the portrayal of Ray and Lila by Leo and Upham. Every emotion the characters feel is etched across the actresses' faces. Every wrinkle, freckle and blemish is there as well.

Ray and Lila live day to day, hand to mouth, every penny vital to survival. These are not women for whom skin or dental care is a concern, let alone an option. In the film industry, where beauty is king, exposing that kind of raw truth seems both frightening and risky. When asked how hard it was to be "ugly" on screen, Leo answered thoughtfully.

"I'm an actress who's been working for almost 30 years. I play all kinds of women. Women look in all kinds of ways," she said. "There's a very large portion of the industry which employs me that is not particularly interested in the truth about women. Every once in a while you get a golden opportunity to play a human being in a very full and complete sense. That's what Frozen River was. As an actor, it was a very simple choice to make."

Upham is a petite Native American woman with dark, expressive eyes and an easy smile, who is newer to the game and for whom Lila may be that life-changing breakout role young actors pray for. She feels a little differently about her stark appearance on the screen.

"I won't say I enjoy seeing myself in this film because I did look, in my opinion, very rough. But it was right for the character. It was fitting. But it is hard," she added, "seeing yourself in front of industry professionals like Quentin Tarantino, worrying about how you look and how the audience is going to see you." Upham said she's confident, in time, she'll look back on Frozen River and truly see Lila as a completely separate person. And she has no doubt that 20 years from now, she'll still be proud to have been a part of this film.

Frozen River is not an easy movie to watch. As each trip increases Ray and Lila's exposure, not only to the dangers of the slowly warming ice as they race across the St. Lawrence, but also to the law as Trooper Finnerty (played with an understated slyness by Michael O'Keefe) edges nearer to the truth of the women's activities, so does the tension. Particularly cringe-worthy scenes involve a fleeing Pakistani family and another in which the dreaded sound of ice cracking beneath Ray's heavy car echoes across the river. And, like the lives of Ray and Lila, the film doesn't have a fairytale ending, but one that they—and the audience—can live with.