“Frozen River:” The cold hard truth of smuggling

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Review By Sandra Hale Schulman
News From Indian Country 9-08

This stunning film, written and directed by Courtney Hunt, has already earned awards and accolades from Sundance and major critics. The power of the film is it’s raw simplicity and brutally honest look at the story of Ray Eddy, an upstate New York trailer mom who is lured into the world of illegal immigrant smuggling.

She meets Lila, a Mohawk girl who lives on a reservation that straddles the U.S.-Canadian border. Broke after her husband takes off with the down payment for their new doublewide, Ray reluctantly teams up with Lila, a smuggle. The two begin making runs across the frozen St. Lawrence River carrying illegal Chinese and Pakistani immigrants in the trunk of Ray’s Dodge Spirit.

“I wrote this film after learning about women smugglers at the border of New York State and Canada who drive their cars across the frozen St. Lawrence River to make money to support their kids,” says director Hunt. “The risk involved compelled me to write a story, not only about smuggling at the northern border, but also about what life circumstances would lead someone to take such chances. What I discovered was that a mother’s instinct to protect her children is more powerful than any cultural, political or economic boundary line. Melissa Leo (Ray) and Misty Upham (Lila) embodied the unheralded struggle of single mothers of all ethnicities who are living on the edge.”


Shot in 24 days, in sub-zero weather in Plattsburgh, New York, with a bare-bones budget, the production of “Frozen River” depended on many things going right. Weather was a constant factor and the crew endured fierce cold and night shoots to get the footage.

The actors, Hunt says, many of whom were first timers, showed commitment on the level of professionals and the professionals, especially Melissa Leo, led them with generosity of spirit and great skill. The other enormous factor was the participation of the people of Plattsburgh, New York, who supported the crew in a thousand ways and gave “Frozen River” a home.

New York Times critic Stephen Holden says, “Venturing deep into the trenches where hard-working Americans struggle to put food on the table, Courtney Hunt’s somber film “Frozen River” evokes a perfect storm of present-day woes: illegal immigration, ethnic tension, depressed real estate, high gas prices and dire poverty.

As a working actor for more than 20 years, Melissa Leo is most widely known for her brilliant portrayal of Detective Kay Howard on “Homicide: Life On The Streets.”

Among her other roles: “The Young Riders,” “The “L” Word,” “21 Grams,” “Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada And Hollywood Dreams.”

Lila is played by Misty Upham, born in Kallispell, Montana, and grew up in south Seattle. She began her career at the age of thirteen when she joined a community theater group, Red Eagle Soaring. What began as a summer workshop soon turned into a full-time job. By the age of fourteen she was writing and directing short skits and performing on tours throughout the northwest. In the next four years she would be accepted to several Seattle theater companies, all while attending high school.

Her first break came in 2001 when she landed the role of Mrs. Blue Cloud in Chris Eyre’s sophomore project “Skins,” where she portrayed a victim of domestic abuse on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Upham additional credits include: Eyre’s “Edge Of America,” Rick Stevenson’s “Expiration Date,” ABC’s “Dreamkeeper.”

Left: Misty Upham as Lila. Right: Melissa Leo as Ray.
Photos by Jory Sutton © 2007 “Frozen River” Productions, LLC. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.

Writer Director Courtney Hunt holds an MFA from Columbia University’s Film Division. Her thesis film, “Althea Faught,” a short about the American Civil War, which she wrote and directed, was purchased by PBS in 1996 and aired on American Playhouse. Hunt’s second short film, “Frozen River,” premiered in the New York Film Festival in September 2004, and went on to screen at numerous other festivals, including Los Angeles, Nashville, Williamstown, and the American Indian Film Festival.

Notable producer Heather Rae has produced both narrative and documentary feature films. Her credits include: “Trudell,” about Native activist John Trudell, Independent Lens’ “Water Flowing Together,” about master ballet dancer Jock Soto, “Sawtooth,” starring Adam Beach, Gary Farmer and Udo Kier, and “Backroads,” directed by Shirley Cheechoo. For six years, Rae ran the Native Program at the Sundance Institute and was a programmer for the Sundance Film Festival. Rae is Cherokee Indian and a mother of three.

New York Times critic Stephen Holden says, “Venturing deep into the trenches where hard-working Americans struggle to put food on the table, Courtney Hunt’s somber film “Frozen River” evokes a perfect storm of present-day woes: illegal immigration, ethnic tension, depressed real estate, high gas prices and dire poverty. The film’s setting, in upstate New York at the Canadian border, is a gray wintry landscape of mud and slush dotted with trailers and discount stores. Although it is days before Christmas, there is no joy here, and as the movie goes along, its chill begins to seep into your bones.”

The LA Times raves as well saying, “Spare and unsentimental as well as intensely dramatic, character grounded in reality and filled with involving incidents, “Frozen River’s” account of two women who end up unlikely partners smuggling illegal immigrants over the Canadian border is very much the vision of writer-director Courtney Hunt, who told the story first as a short film before expanding it to feature length. Hunt has not only created a powerful narrative, she also has cast the film with two exceptional actresses. The formidably gifted but perennially underutilized Melissa Leo finally gets to carry a film, and the relative newcomer Misty Upham has the skills to match up with her. Together, there is almost nothing they can’t do. Though they don’t necessarily see it themselves, we come to understand how much these exhausted women, both tired of being on the short end of the stick, have in common. One of the questions “Frozen River” asks is how much that communality will mean in the context of an uncaring, unforgiving world. It is a powerful question, and the film answers it in the best way possible.”

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