In Courtney Hunt's Frozen River, she's as authentic as she's ever been. We first see her in closeup, smoking a cigarette, and the camera examines every wrinkle and blemish. (There really aren't that many.) It's a handsome face, but it's somber -- no, dour.
Soon we begin to learn the story of her character, Ray Eddy. She lives in a little New York state town, bordering Quebec, that presents itself as the "gateway to the fourth coast." She works part-time at a dollar store, and by Christmas, she may be manager (at least, that's the lie she tells people). She lives in a crappy trailer with her two sons, ages 15 and 5, and she owes thousands of dollars on a posh double-wide that the guy won't deliver unless she pays up.
She also has an alcoholic husband, somewhere out there, who may be gambling away their house money on the nearby Mohawk reservation, which stretches across the borderless border between the U.S. and Canada. Her son is willing to get a job -- willing to be a man -- but she insists he finish school. So she decides, out of desperation, to look for their missing dad.
Then, she happens upon a source of income. Lila, a depressive and indolent young Indian woman she knows, knows about an operation that smuggles Chinese men across Mohawk territory from Canada for $2,400 a pair. All Lila needs is a car with a trunk. So they go into business, tentatively, even though Ray has so much to lose.
She's bothered by what happens to the men when they arrive in the U.S. (they work like slaves to pay off enormous debt), but she has a family, and really, no choice. On one run, something happens, something so horrifying that it should throb with anguish. But these people are depleted, so there's mostly just silence.
Rife with symbolism and sadness, Hunt's debut film is more interesting for its characters and milieu than for the story it tells. Frozen River takes us to a forgotten place, something few movies do any more with fidelity. The "border" Ray crosses with her car and its payload is the frozen river of the title: strong enough to support a semi, she's told. But it's a risk, and it could crack at any time, sending her into a literal abyss far more immediate and deadly than her metaphorical one.
The dilemma of native North Americans is more at the periphery of Frozen River than at its heart. It's a familiar story of a culture -- many cultures, actually -- living in a world of defeat and malaise. They look inward, get by, and try to maintain some dignity and independence. That's hard to do when you're separate and supposedly equal.
We see some tribal justice toward the end of Frozen River, when Hunt decides there must be consequences for the things that Ray and Lila do. Her climax works a little too hard to stir things up and then wrap them up: You can't flinch at despair, and Hunt ultimately does. She tries to redefine family, and she ends with hope. I suppose there's nothing wrong with that, although it does make it easier to believe that things will always turn out all right.
The actors in Frozen River are earnest and good, but Leo is Hunt's centerpiece, and she never breaks a smile. Ray is uncomfortable with herself, just as Leo has always seemed on film, and in several scenes, we watch Ray record and re-record the message on her cell phone answering machine. Her voice sounds almost cheerful the first time. No good. So she does it again in a neutral tone, and that one takes. It's the kind of throwaway scene in a movie that shows a filmmaker and an actress in perfect sync.
Starts Fri., Sept. 26. Regent Square.