I can't remember the exact scene, but at some point in Frozen River I thought, "Man, this is for real." It may have been when Ray (Melissa Leo, above) asked her supervisor for more hours to work, or when she served her kids another meal of popcorn and Tang, or when she pulled a gun on Lila (Misty Upham, below left), who was refusing to return her stolen car. I was struck by the utter desperation of these characters, and it evoked a certain familiar feeling in me, one of gutwrenching empathy and helplessness. Though I haven't been to the New York - Canadian border where the film is set, and I've been blessed in my life not to have experienced that desperation to this point, I've still observed it firsthand in this country, at the San Diego - Tijuana border, for example, or in the Mississippi Delta, in the streets of South Boston, in San Francisco's Tenderloin District, or right here in Minneapolis. People in dire circumstances faced with decisions that I've never had to consider: shelter or food, heat or water, school or safety, lunch or dinner.
See this desperation enough and you develop an immediate recognition of that feeling. Several films this year already have triggered those thoughts in me, including Blindsight, Chop Shop, La Misma Luna, The Betrayal, and Up The Yangtze. While Frozen River is not a documentary, it leaves no doubt that there is a very real story behind it. Sadly, in an interview with Minneapolis Star Tribune critic Colin Covert, writer/director Courtney Hunt reported that following a New York screening of the film, someone approached her and said, "But people don't really live like that."
Uh, yeah, they do.
And the ignorance on the part of all of us who deny that fact is staggering. I can't judge you for standing idly by while these people struggle next to you, but I can sure get upset if you plainly deny that their struggle exists. No matter where you live (with a few exceptions), we're way too interconnected at this point to walk around pretending like what's happening in one place has no affect on what's happening in another. From taxes to gas prices to housing density to crime to food shortages, there is hardly an issue that exists in its own little bubble. I'm not trying to be cynical and preachy here, but it still astounds me that we can so easily overlook the connections between our lives and those of the people down the street or across the ocean from us. Frozen River perfectly illustrates this illusion of difference; Ray and Lila are basically living the same lives in two "different worlds" that are only separated by a few miles.
Does Frozen River offer any easy answers to the questions it raises about such topics as illegal immigration, poverty, broken families, gambling addiction, human trafficking, consumerism and the sovereignty of American Indian tribes? No, and I don't believe that was Courtney Hunt's objective. Like Chop Shop, this is cinéma vérité simply giving us an intimate look at the people living these lives around us. In that sense it's quite a success, made even more impressive by the fact that this is Hunt's first film.
Although Frozen River won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance earlier this year, I expect the only awards in its future will be for Melissa Leo and Courtney Hunt, and they will be deserved. Aside from that, it will probably fade into obscurity along with its peers (Chop Shop, Half Nelson, etc.) as raw, incisive accounts of contemporary America that most people would rather continue ignoring. In my opinion, it would be to our collective detriment to do so.
What did you take home?