Frozen River
Written and directed by Courtney Hunt

The debut film from Courtney Hunt is an object lesson in independent film production that proves that if you have a good story, well-told, you don't need big stars, expensive production or slick advertising to get your film made and seen. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival (an honor, but no guarantee of commercial success) and has gone on from a limited opening release in only 7 theaters to play well around the country.

And if your budget is small enough (the estimated budget for this film is around $1M) you can make money on even modest success. The film, which is still in theatrical release has already grossed a little over $2M.

But the business aspect - while important to a director's chances of being able to fund a follow up - is only a small part of the story, a story which was partly begun in our region. Hunt presented a 20 minute teaser from the film at the 2006 Film Columbia Festival, a sample she used as a promotional tool to secure the funding to make the finished film. Audience reaction here was strongly positive, which certainly added to the momentum she needed to build to get financing.

Frozen River tackles important and serious themes - the difficulties faced by fractured American families, immigration, poverty and ethics - in a complex and highly personal way, presenting its characters' choices in all their moral and psychological ambiguity. On a clear line of descent from the Italian neo-realists, Hunt's film seeks to portray the lives of ordinary people, whose stories seldom get told in their own voices. As did the Italians in the early post-war years, Hunt makes a virtue of necessity, focusing on performance rather than production values and the compelling emotions of every-day life rather than grandiose, theatrical melodrama.

The story concerns Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) whose absent, gambling-addicted husband has left her alone to care for her two sons during the Christmas season. Her immediate problem is that he has taken with him her painfully-accumulated down-payment on a new double-wide mobile home to replace the family's crumbling trailer, and she has to come up with the money in short order or lose her deposit. Through a series of coincidences related to her husband's bad behavior, she makes the acquaintance of Lila (Misty Upham), a native American single-mother who lives on the Akwesasne Mohawk Reservation, that spans the US/Canadian border along the St Lawrence River (the frozen river of the title).

Lila works sporadically for the Tribal Council, but earns little there. She has lost custody of her young son to her former husband's family, who consider her unworthy to care for the child, and make it difficult for Lila to even see him. Although they have a lot in common, as exploited, poorly-educated, low-skill workers at the bottom of the capitalist food-chain, their first contacts, tainted by Ray's resentment of her husband's actions, are hostile. The way they gradually come to recognize their similarities and their common humanity is an important dramatic lynch-pin of the story.

Lila earns extra money - which she tries to give to her husband's family for support of her son, despite their ingratitude and harsh treatment - by helping an acquaintance who smuggles illegal aliens into the US via the reservation, using a route that involves driving across the icy surface of the St. Lawrence. Her own car having broken down, Lila, seeing Ray's need for cash, recruits her as driver and partner.

The unlikely couple develop a relationship of mutual respect (not without significant reservations) and begin to form a bond during their lonely and nerve-wracking crossings of the river, and then the border of the Reservation, that exposes them to the ongoing scrutiny of Trooper Finnerty (Michael O'Keefe), whose duties include interdicting human trafficking. Between the risks of their work and the increasingly perilous situations they face as their problematic lives teeter on the brink of their ability to control them, the film creates a strong, but never melodramatic, sense of tension and suspense.

A series of incidents that occur during their crossings reveal the two women's fears and aspirations, and the more they see, the more they realize how much of themselves they can see in each other. This dynamic - of self-revelation through contact with others - is central to what makes the film work. The audience, closed in the claustrophobic car with the characters, surrounded by miles of empty blackness. becomes part of this process of discovery.

The film concludes on a note that is satisfying and positive, but doesn't feel contrived. The characters' actions and decisions grow very naturally out of the transformation we've seen taking place in their lives through the course of the film. Most good story-telling revolves around personal transformations - our most individual and most universal dynamic - and any story that deals with that process in an honest, authentic way can't help but draw us in. Frozen River does that.

Courtney Hunt wrote the film as well as directed. Her handling of the story shows real confidence and skill. She never falls into the trap of "overwriting." Both the narrative arc and the dialogue are kept simple (another characteristic her film share with neo-realism) and the story is told as much in images, in body language and pregnant silences, as in dialogue.

That said, Hunt's ear for dialogue is finely tuned There is nothing stilted or mannered in the script. There's can't be many things more difficult than giving voice to the inner lives of characters whose loneliness and isolation have rendered them nearly inarticulate, but she artfully uses a combination of dialogue that is suggestive rather than explicit and supportive imagery to convey - as such people do in actual life - much more than they are able to say.

She is supported in this effort by an outstanding cast. Though there is no one - not even indie-heroine and TV performer Melissa Leo - who could be called a "star,” that's a good thing for the film's naturalist approach which a more recognizable cast might well have disturbed.

It is often true that low-budget, independent films bring out the best in actors. Working in difficult conditions, more out of dedication to the part and the character than out of expectation of a big paycheck, and with a smaller, more intimate set and crew, the actors have a chance to expand their range and work closely with a director in what is often a much more collaborative effort than a big-budget film is likely to be.

Melissa Leo has gravitated to this kind of work, and has developed her skills playing a wide variety of characters - far more than she ever would have had she gone the "Starlet" route. Her work here is exemplary - displaying Ray's personality, without inhibition, with all its limitations and un-flattering realities. She goes for the emotional truth of the character, and finds it in a most satisfying and authentic way.

Missy Upham plays head to head with Leo, in a case where - if you step back - you can see the two actors' work building on each other, as each increasingly brings out the true and the significant in the other. In some ways Upham, her character the much less loquacious of the two, has the harder job: to express all that is going on for her in very few words. She achieves this difficult task, expressing her side of the evolving relationship between the two women movingly, and making room for Leo to do the same.

Michael OKeefe plays the women's nemesis (almost in the Greek sense) Trooper Finnerty with an effective combination of reserve and humanity. His primary note is the Trooper's professionalism, but he also lets us see the man behind the badge. Young actor Charlie McDermott does a fine job as Ray's older son, carrying the only real sub-plot - his struggle with his changing adolescent identity in the midst of a disrupted family - as a meaningful counterpoint that makes Ray's concerns more real and more poignant.

The rest of the cast generally perform well. There are one or two slightly awkward moments in expository scenes that involve minor characters, but there are also some outstanding supporting players - notably Jay Klaitz as the self-involved mobile-home salesman and Mark Boone Junior as an amoral trafficker - who make a positive contribution to the energy level of the film even in what are basically "cameo” parts.

The production values are indie-raw - but such gritty simplicity is one of the things that made the films of the neo-realists and the independents who have built on their work so effective. The camera work evokes the tight spaces, the claustrophobia and limited horizons of the characters' lives with a clarity and effectiveness that is a powerful contribution. In a film with limited dialogue, where actors have to use other tools to get their message across, this kind of co-operation and support from those composing the visuals can mean the difference between success and failure.

This is Hunt's first feature. She shows such promise as both a writer and a director that one has to hope that the success of this film will make it easier for her to carry her career forward. At the same time, one hopes it won't "spoil" her - that she won't be drawn into the Hollywood machine that values style over substance and a fat paycheck above all. Whatever the future may hold, in Frozen River, she has created something of which she and all her talented and hard-working collaborators can be very proud.

But that's just my opinion. What's yours? Let me know.