I really didn’t care for Courtney Hunt’s feature debut “Frozen River” when I caught it at Sundance, but others did, to the point where it won the Grand Jury Prize, was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics, opened New Directors/New Films and now, in theatrical release, is receiving mostly praise, while star Melissa Leo’s name is being idly tossed around by the early Oscar-watching crowd. Her nervy, ego-free performance is without a doubt the main reason to watch the film.
Amongst the praise: Owen Gleiberman at Entertainment Weekly observes that “as written and directed by Courtney Hunt, the movie is no somber, medicinal downer. It takes the form of a thriller you can believe in,” while Stephen Holden at the New York Times finds that “Ms. Hunt’s eye for detail has the precision of a short story writer’s. She misses nothing.” Andrew Sarris at the New York Observer claims the film “plays out as one of the strongest feminist statements I have ever seen onscreen,” and that “Ms. Leo and [co-star Misty] Upham somehow project an aura of indestructibility around Ray and Lila that should prove thematically and spiritually invigorating for adult audiences with a feeling for the heroism of everyday life.”
More measured in his acclaim is Andrew O’Hehir at Salon, who writes that “‘Frozen River’ isn’t cinematically ambitious or formally adventurous, but it’s built around powerful and nuanced performances by Leo, Upham and Charlie McDermott (as Ray’s teenage son, uncomfortably poised at the edge of manhood).” “What lends it distinction, if only mildly,” adds Scott Tobias at the Onion AV Club, “are the engrossing particulars of the setting, with its uncommon glimpse into tribal law and reservation life, and Leo’s performance, which brings overdue attention to a career spent laboring under the radar.” Ella Taylor at the LA Weekly allows that “the movie careens uncertainly between gritty realism, sudden bursts of melodrama and inspiration,” but concludes that “what sticks in memory isn’t Ray and Lila’s 11th-hour redemption but the unnerving lack of basic safety that comes with living on the financial edge.”
Not won over: Slant‘s Ed Gonzalez, who writes “Call it Sundanceploitation, only this one is a more shameless brew–less intuitive, more manipulative and amateurishly performed, and so screechily written you might be excused for thinking Paul Haggis was behind it.” And the New York Press’ Armond White suggests that “from both Ray and Lila’s overburdened motherhood and oppressed femininity to the utterly joyless environment they share, Frozen River says little about the realities of American poverty and human subsistence. It merely proves how self-righteous middle-class filmmakers can be about the underclass.”
[Photo: “Frozen River,” Sony Pictures Classics, 2008]