MOVIE REVIEW- ‘Frozen River': Giving indie films a good name

a still from this week's film During the Great Depression, people went to the movies for Busby Berkeley musicals and other escapist fare. There's still escapism out there during our current maybe-recession, but there's also realism that can be greatly depressing if it's not handled well.

Steve WarrenRay Eddy (Melissa Leo) works part-time at the Yankee One Dollar store and takes care of her two sons, T.J. (Charlie McDermott), 15, and Ricky (James Reilly), five. Their father, a compulsive gambler, disappeared last week– the week before Christmas– with the money for a balloon payment on a new double-wide. If Ray can't find him or come up with $4,372 on her own, she'll lose the $1,500 deposit.

Fate hooks Ray up with a Mohawk woman, Lila (Misty Upham), and before she knows it, she's driving across the St. Lawrence and bringing illegal immigrants back in her trunk. There's no border issue, Lila explains, because the land on both sides of the river belongs to the Mohawks.

Desperation wins out over whatever morality might be involved, and Ray and Lila make several more runs together, gradually reaching something approaching friendship along the way. Ray learns that Lila– who would be legally blind (if she did anything legally)– had a son a year ago, but her mother stole him from the hospital, and the tribal council won't interfere in such matters.

The tension builds as Christmas approaches. Frozen River never quite becomes an action movie, but it gets suspenseful before the final scenes illustrate the difference between the Indian and white systems of justice.

Frozen River is worthy of attention on several counts but seems to be getting it mostly for Melissa Leo's performance. Like Richard Jenkins in The Visitor, it's a breakout starring role for someone who's been a dependable supporting player for many years. What seems to impress people most is Leo's "bravery" in allowing herself to look her age.

She still has a good body, which she shows on a couple of occasions, but the first extreme close-up of her weathered face serves warning that this will not be a vanity piece. Recalling Vanessa Redgrave and the late Colleen Dewhurst, Leo proves 47 is the new 47.

The sad– by Hollywood standards– result of this revelation is that Leo will have to settle for scripts Meryl Streep turns down instead of competing with Meg Ryan for overage ingénue roles.

It's funny that a woman should be considered courageous for looking her age, but that's the only funny thing about Frozen River, the kind of solid drama that gives indie films a good name.