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Global Human Smuggling:
Comparative Perspectives
by David Kyle, Rey Koslowski
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
. "Frozen River"

For her first full length feature film, Courtney Hunt writes and directs a modest, intimate and dramatically solid character piece about two up-state New York trailer moms who are cultural antagonists but who share being in extremis monetarily for uniquely different reasons. The cleverness in the plotting of two unlikely smugglers turns unremarkable lives into a smartly crafted, fascinating story in which everything evolves out of constantly changing developments and motivations.

Even if you know ahead of time that these two women will become partners in a smuggling operation over the Canadian border you would not be able to predict the totally credible steps by which Hunt brings it about, and that alone demonstrates conceptual skill.

Both of these women, Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) and Mohawk Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham) live in trailers. Both work in low-paying jobs. Both have children. There the comparison ends. Ray dreams of purchasing a "double wide" trailer and an upgrade in her living circumstances for herself and her family. But, just as the family savings were reaching the down payment, which would mean the delivery of the new home, he goes and dumps it all on gambling and disappears without a word or a dollar bill. Ray is desperate, philosophical and as resourceful as her situation allows.

Lila is a native American who works in a bingo parlor on the reservation, an area whose range encompasses both sides of the border. Here, the frontier is marked by the St. Lawrence River, which now, two days before Christmas, is frozen solid. Free transit is allowed so long as you don't arouse the cops on the American side who monitor highway traffic like bear on a salmon run. Lila's flirtation with arrest and imprisonment comes from her desperation to retrieve her 2-year old baby from her predatory mother-in-law.

When she learns from her older son T.J. (Charlie McDermott) (who is a 15-year old handful) that her husband left his Dodge Spirit behind and that it's been stolen, Ray scouts the town and finds the sedan in a parking lot. Shortly thereafter, the thief appears, and turns out to be Lila, who has claimed it as an abandoned vehicle. Nice try--that Ray, toting a handgun, isn't buying an inch of. But this little crime is the tip of the iceberg on this feisty little car thief. Needing a vehicle with a rear trunk, unable to buy a car off the local lot, she compromises her rejection of ever working with whites and invites Ray to join her in smuggling two people across what she regards as the no-border reservation and enjoy a nice load of money that they'll split down the middle--at least until they both reach their monetary goals.

Those needs overcoming her moral issues and fears about the ice holding the weight of her car, Ray sees a way to pay for that double-wide and for Christmas gifts for her boys. And, for the big plasma TV that's about to be repossessed, to boot.

The unlikely partnership has its dangers, betrayals, its victories and a near-tragic outcome. But what's on Hunt's mind, in the formulation of her screenplay, is more than that. These women, divided by something deeper than a frozen river borderline between two nations, in joining forces out of desperate need, begin to see each other in personal, non-labeling, unprejudicial terms. Once issues of unfairness and betrayal are neutralized, the bond that forms reveals more agreement in their decisions and understandings than either might have thought possible.

In the end, when things are brought to a boiling involvement between the American state troopers and the tribal council over the discovery of the women's little enterprise, the outcome is to be decided by what they've gone through together and what it means in terms of the mutual humanity they recognize in one another. Refreshingly, Hunt pulls this off without resorting to sentiment.

Get it now!
"21 Grams" with Melissa Leo DVD
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In a rare leading role for one of the finer character actresses in the motion picture universe ("21 Grams," "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,") Leo is stalwart in embracing honesty of performance, devoted to nothing but the ring of truth in the rendering of a character. Her relentless mother is gritty, bare-bones, no-nonsense integrity to the imperfections of humanity.

Misty Upham ("Expiration Date") needs only be herself to convey the same level of actuality and she nicely surprises with calm determination as she expresses the natural prejudices that prove to be only skin-deep. Young Turk Charlie McDermott gets a chance here to display a lot of the attributes of a boy on the cusp, quick to rebel or take responsibility.

All of which shows a writer-director without a shred of cliche' in her bag of tricks, not the least of which is an uncompromising sense of, and concentration on, reality. It's a rare sensibility that belies talent and skill. A certain dullness seems to flow through the yarn every now and then but it seems okay by being organic to the concept. She hasn't written a thriller and she knows it. Her adoption of a quiet, earthy tone is true to the pace and coldness of life and it imparts nice delicacy, well-observed detail and a hugely laudable absence of driveling sentiment that would undoubtedly have taken over in the hands of a lesser storyteller.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Border crossing. Solid enough for smuggling.

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