Feminist Film Review of Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River

moviesThe movie Frozen River is a realistic example of the life lived by many poverty stricken mothers in America during the current times of extreme financial struggle. The movie was written and directed by Courtney Hunt. The character Ray, played by Melissa Leo, is abandoned by her gambling husband and is left to raise her two young boys. When Ray meets a Native American Mohawk woman, the character Lila played by Misty Upham, they become a two person smuggling team to bring illegal immigrants into America from Canada through Mohawk land. Without smuggling, Ray and Lila would earn minimum wage at most and struggle to make ends meet. These two women are faced with the stresses of raising and saving their families. Because of their current socio-economic standings, these women try desperately and dangerously to improve the lives of their families by risking their own lives. What does that say about their maternal roles?

The concept of “mother” in this film takes multiple roles. In Kaplan’s “Case of Missing Mother” article, she discusses different dominant paradigms including the good mother, the bad mother, the heroic mother, and the silly/weak/vain mother (Kaplan 128). Ray and Lila, as mothers, can very easily be seen as “bad mothers” in the eyes of society. However, the difficulty faced with categorizing these specific characters in these roles is that even if they are seen as “bad mothers”, they are mothers trying desperately to be the good or even heroic mothers. These women risk their lives for their family in order to simply survive. These women do not have any need for extravagance, just existence. Living in America and being a woman in poverty is not a very unique experience; every day women struggle to feed their children.

The topic of the film is a very heavy discussion point that is not usually found in films. Hollywood often ignores societal issues or the topic discussed “must always be [a topic] that can be resolved within the existing system, i.e. patriarchical capitalism; the real problems, which can’t, can only be dramatized obliquely, and very likely unconsciously, within the entertainment movie” (Wood 339). The topics found in Frozen River do not have a solution. The film simply shows the process and outcome of a woman becoming involved in a smuggling scheme. Some of the reasons it is so surprising that the film was nominated for Academy Awards were the unknown female writer and director, the low budget, and (in my opinion) the topic. Society has a very difficult time watching issues that are not wrapped in a pretty package at the end of 90 minutes.

The style of the film, Cinéma vérité, leaves the viewer feeling close with the characters. It is very easy to be sympathetic towards the women who are doing illegal activities because they have so many identifiable and relatable traits. Overall, Frozen River is a very dark movie both topically and visually. These two darknesses meet during the film because many of the scenes are very dark and the viewer struggles to hear the audio. As a viewer, I felt as if some aspects of the movie are kept from me because of how dark some of the scenes appeared. The darkness allows the viewer to really be involved in the topic of the film. Without the overly dark scenes, the hardships the mothers face would not have been successfully portrayed. The darker moments in the movie truly represent the inner turmoil that the mothers face throughout the movie. The film creates a lot of strain for the viewers, leaving them feeling just as trapped as the characters.

September 28, 2010