EDITORS NOTE: This review of Sundance Film Festival grand jury prize winner "Frozen River" was originally published during festival. As Ray Eddy, the heroine of filmmaker Courtney Hunt's riveting melodrama "Frozen River;" a working-class mom in Upstate New York trying to care for two sons after her husband skips out with the family savings, actress Melissa Leo sports a nose turned red from the winter cold. She has creased cheekbones weathered by hard living and tattoos on her thin body. Leo is the female embodiment of harsh New York winters and the impoverished rural communities along the St. Lawrence River. But don't think for a second that Leo's unforgettable lead performance in "Frozen River" is purely a physical one. As Ray, the type of workingwoman seldom seen in movies, Leo shows a fiery passion to do right by her sons and emotional power bright enough for ten movie dramas.
Leo gives the performance of a lifetime in "Frozen River" but she also receives great support. The artful trinity of Leo, costar Misty Upham and Hunt leads to independent moviemaking at its best; telling real-life, off the grid stories with compassion, skill and honesty. As Lila Littlewolf, a Mohawk woman who becomes Ray's unexpected business partner, Upham is rock steady and strong-willed; a perfect match for Leo's Ray. They become colleagues, smuggling illegal immigrants via nighttime crossings across the frozen St. Lawrence River. By film's end, their relationship becomes something far more substantial. Rural Upstate New York is as much a character as Ray and Lila. Hunt and cinematographer Reed Dawson Morano do justice to the land's clear poverty as well at its wintry beauty. Hunt wisely lets "Frozen River" linger on a break in the trees, the sloping entry to the St. Lawrence that Ray and Lila use to smuggle their human cargo. Mohawk Territory is nearby and it's as if there are two separate worlds but that icy doorway becomes the film's symbol of opportunity as well as understandable defeat. Hunt builds "Frozen River" from an earlier short film and her instincts for original storytelling are strong. "Frozen River" is truly unique in its characters and story; a rare treat with movies.
Many of the film's best moments are its small ones. Ray digs through her pockets to pay for gas. She serves popcorn to her sons for dinner. But Hunt adds heft to the melodrama and tension alongside the family heartaches by making Ray and Lila's nighttime drives across the icy St. Lawrence into thrilling scenes of worry. Their journey together, both off and on the frozen river, is melodrama at its grittiest, dealing with a working poor family stuck in a part of the country stripped of good jobs and financial opportunities. For Leo, somewhat recognizable thanks to her years on the TV cop drama "Homocide: Life on the Street" and the films "21 Grams" and "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," Hunt's incredible film offers her a chance to truly stand out and shine. In return, Leo makes "Frozen River" a movie to champion.
indieWIRE's coverage of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival is available in iW's special Park City section.