Frozen River (15): thawing hearts at Christmas

Sometimes a quality Christmas film slips through the net. You mention its name to a friend and draw a complete blank. They watch it based on your recommendation. They can’t understand why it’s not widely known either…

Breath-taking thriller demands to be seen

Courtney Hunt’s gritty 2008 action movie, Frozen River won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, and was double-Oscar nominated for Best Actress in Melissa Yeo, and Best Original Screenplay by Hunt.  Quentin Tarentino declared it ‘the most exciting thriller I’ve seen this year…. It took my breath away!‘  Yet it remains largely unknown on this side of the Atlantic, although it pops up on television every so often and is definitely worth catching. Frozen River happens to be my favourite Christmas film.

Cold hard-graft lives hide warm hearts

The film centres on two worn-down lone mothers, one Native American (Misty Upham), the other White (Leo) thrown together as smuggling partners across iced Reservation waters between Canada and the US in the days before Christmas for the sake of their children. 

The womens’ lives are cold and full of hard-graft scraping to make ends meet but each retains a deep maternal tenderness nevertheless.  On the radio, a commentator declares ‘It’s all about the kids.  Yeah, it’s all about the kids all the time.’  That is the heart of Frozen River, the motivation of these two worlds-apart women.  And it is as if the gradual recognition of this in the other shifts the pair’s initial harsh suspicion to a mutual respect.

Taut journey across ice expanse

The third main character in this gripping drama is the dangerous frozen river itself that the pair must risk crossing.  For Yeo’s Ray, it unites New York State with Canada and represents illegality.  Myla (Upham) however happens to be Mohawk and opposite banks are Mohawk territory.  Their different perceptions separate them. 

Yet the very fearsomeness of the ice expanse, the taut journey both are forced to encounter this Christmastime in their lives serves to release them from their prejudices and their social isolation. They understand each other.  They have become friends

Frozen River is a hard-won Christmas tale then – why, there’s even a miracle baby – but as with, say, Young At Heart, it is a tale of a new beginning beyond dark times.  It is a Christmas film that also magics an Easter Grace.

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