It’s a week before Christmas, and in upstate New York Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) is struggling to keep her head above water. Her husband has gambled away their savings and promptly disappeared, she is having to support herself and her two sons on her meagre discount store wages, and she’s about to miss out on a vital payment for a new prefabricated home. In desperation she becomes involved in a people-smuggling operation across the border to Canada, partnering a Mohawk Indian woman Lila (Misty Upham) from a nearby reservation. The duo drive across the frozen Saint Lawrence river, hiding illegal immigrants in the boot of Ray’s Dodge Spirit, while trying to avoid the police patrols.
The debut feature of writer-director Courtney Hunt, this regional US indie can be loosely grouped alongside the likes of Wendy and Lucy and the forthcoming Goodbye Solo, all of which examine the everyday lives of blue-collar characters invariably ignored by mainstream cinema.
Stylistically the digitally shot Frozen River isn’t particularly ambitious, yet this no-frills approach chimes with the film’s subject matter, and the bleak, wintry landscapes have a sombre power. Hunt hones in on the gradual friendship that develops between her two protagonists Lila and Ray, two working-class mothers functioning without any male support.
Leo’s central performance, which won her a Best Actress nomination at this year’s Oscars, is exceptional in its conviction and lack of vanity: the Dardenne brothers, you feel, would approve of Ray’s resilience and determination and her moving act of sacrifice.
Filmhouse, Edinburgh & GFT Glasgow from Fri 17 Jul.