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Frozen River

(2008) *** R
96 min. Sony Pictures Classics. Director: Courtney Hunt. Cast: Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, Charlie McDermott, Mark Boone Jr., Jay Klaitz.

/content/films/3152/4.jpgAs the heroine of Frozen River sadly ponies up her last seven dollars and seventy-four cents for gas at a Mohawk reservation in upstate New York, it’s hard not to think of the film as a timely reflection of today’s deep economic recession. All suddenly single mom Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) wants in the world is to make the balloon payment for her doublewide before Christmas. If she does, she gets more breathing room for herself and her two sons—if she fails, she loses her deposit and her perhaps her last shreds of hope.

A week before Christmas, Ray’s gambling-addicted husband has up and gone with the family savings. Though she’s dying inside, Ray outwardly keeps it together for her kids. Her five-year-old innocently pines for a Hot Wheels Blast and Crash set, while her fifteen-year-old is growing up too fast and too furious. Despite her long time on the job, Ray’s twentysomething manager at the Yankee Dollar store tells her, “I see you as a short-timer.” With no chance for advancement, a bump in pay, or even more hours on the schedule, Ray has every reason to despair.

In search of her husband, she instead finds his Dodge Spirit abandoned on the res and assumed by a taciturn trailer resident named Lila (unaffected Misty Upham), who turns out to be a smuggler of illegal immigrants across the Canadian border. The women discover that they need each other—to carry out smuggling operations for much needed cash and, perhaps, for moral support. Lila has a broken family of her own—an infant daughter “stolen” by her mother-in-law during even tougher times.

The smugglers’ path is treacherous, for reasons paranoid (suspicion of their Chinese and Pakistani cargo) and presently dangerous (a route across the thin ice of the frozen St. Lawrence River). To make matters worse, Lila’s eyesight is failing and Ray finds herself under the watchful eye of a state trooper (Michael O’Keefe). With mom busily adopting a new life of crime, teen T.J. (Charlie McDermott) is left to his own not-so-ethical devices to try to preserve family harmony. The stage is set for a troubling Christmas Eve all around.

In expanding her short film of the same name, writer-director Courtney Hunt has something of the eye for detail expected from a good short story writer. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival, Frozen River evokes Raymond Carver in its depiction of strained American lives: Rent-to-Own is coming to collect the TV, dinner is popcorn and Tang, and T.J.'s only, sad memento of his AWOL father is an acetylene torch. As a tenacious mother, the fearless Melissa Leo gets a well-deserved showcase. Leo expertly defines Ray as a tough woman who’s nevertheless in over her head, ineptly grasping a pistol as she drives and taking increasingly bigger risks against all better judgment. Her guiding star is her motherhood, and we’re right there with her in hoping it’ll bring both Ray and Lila home.

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Aspect ratios: 1.78:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1

Street date: 2/10/2009

Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Sony's Blu-ray of Frozen River presents the film at its best advantage, in time to boost Melissa Leo's Oscar campaign for Best Actress. The image looks a bit video-noisy at times (most likely due to shooting conditions on HD), but detail is very strong and the color scheme is dead-on accurate to the theatrical prints. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track is surprisingly detailed, more than up to the task of recreating the film's theatrical aural experience.

The Blu-ray comes with only one significant bonus feature: a commentary with director Courtney Hunt and producer Heather Rae. The two take turns telling stories about the cast, their approaches to their tasks, and the various challenges and blessings of the relatively low-budget production. Oddly, Leo isn't involved in any bonus features, though she went on the road to promote the film.

The disc is rounded out by the "Theatrical Trailer" (1:56, HD), previews and the BD-Live hookup to additional online content. Now's the time to bone up for the Oscars, and Leo's performance is not to be missed.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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