Respecting and liking a film are two different things. In the case of Frozen River, I definitely feel one more than the other. This film is about Ray (Melissa Leo), whose husband disappears with the money she’s raised to buy a new trailer, and Lila (Misty Upham), a Mohawk woman who deals in people smuggling across the nearby Canadian border. Made for less than a million dollars, it is a fine example of low-budget filmmaking, as well as a complex examination of race, gender and class.
If I didn’t know Frozen River was directed by a woman, I wouldn’t have found it hard to guess. This film puts more emphasis on Melissa Leo’s acting than how flatteringly it shows her. A few semi-nude scenes are done matter-of-factly, in ways that contribute to a greater sense of who her character is. Meanwhile, Misty Upham had the freedom to decide to cut off most of her hair and gain more than 30 pounds to add to her character, and how this would effect the film’s financial prospects was never an issue. Upham has acne, and she’s Native American, and she’s not skinny. And hey, she’s the co-lead, how about that.
Beyond their appearances, Frozen River is a rarity in how it treats its female leads. They are the centre of the story, with a complex relationship, and are each complex in their own right. They are unlikeable in some ways and sympathetic in others. There’s no romance. This isn’t the case for countless Hollywood movies; perhaps women like this are easier to find in an independent film like Frozen River, but at least the fact that it’s been financially and commercially successful is heartening.
None of this meant that I actually liked watching Frozen River. A slow and understated story, combined with a pervasively cold feeling and some near-unbearably dark plot turns, meant that I couldn’t get drawn in. It’s an interesting and even valuable film, but not one I can talk about without mentioning this caveat.