| Melissa Leo (“21 Grams”) plays Ray Eddy, an upstate New York trailer mom living below the poverty line who is lured into the world of illegal immigrant smuggling when she meets Lila Littlejohn (Misty Upham), a Mohawk girl living on a reservation that straddles the U.S.-Canadian border.
The title refers to the frozen St. Lawrence River that is traversed on repeated runs by Ray’s Dodge Spirit, which is equipped with a button-release trunk for stowing illegal Chinese and Pakistani aliens.
Ray desperately needs the money to cover the down payment due by Christmas on a new double wide for herself and her two sons. Her gambling-addicted husband ran off with their savings. Her cupboard is bare, with meals consisting of Tang and popcorn. Her oldest son offers to quit school and get a job.
The near-sighted Lila has her own problems. Her mother-in-law stole her 1- year-old baby, and the tribal police refuse to get involved in this domestic matter.
The suspense heightens with each trip across the border. A state trooper always seems to be lurking in the background while Ray and Lila do business with unsavory human traffickers profiting from cheap slave labor.
This movie won the Grand Jury Prize for Drama at the Sundance Film Festival.
This shining example of independent filmmaking marks a strong debut for first-time writer/director Courtney Hunt. She proves you can tell a good story on a shoestring budget. The pace is slow and deliberate like real life.
The characters are well-developed, the brief conversations are pertinent and the fine-tuned performances are so good that you forget the main players are actors rather than real people. The handheld camera is used effectively for facial close-ups and the surrounding environment of high winds, bitterly cold temperatures and lots of snow and ice.
The red-headed Leo doesn’t need makeup for this role. Her face’s sad demeanor speaks volumes. She gives one of the best performances of the year that deserves to be honored during awards season. She carries this movie in the same way that Charlize Theron did in her Academy Award-winning turn in “Monster.”
This movie will expose an economic slice-of-life struggle for survival that is unfamiliar to most moviegoers. It reminds us how fortunate we are to have the basic necessities of food, clothing and shelter.
Opening exclusively for a limited engagement at AMC Studio 30 and the Tivoli in Westport.
Keith Cohen, "The Movie Guy"