Frozen River

For a fictional film, even one based on real-life circumstances, “Frozen River” has surprisingly few false or contrived moments. The dialogue, the emotions, the motivations, and the actions of the characters so closely match what we’d expect from real people that when one of them occasionally says something that sounds like a screenwriter came up with it, we’re jolted. Compare this to most movies, where authenticity is so rare that we’re surprised when something doesn’t sound manufactured.

A well-crafted debut from writer/director Courtney Hunt, “Frozen River” is set in a small, wintry town on the New York/Quebec border. Within this town is a Mohawk Indian reservation that straddles the St. Lawrence River and extends into Canada. You can enter the reservation in America, drive through it, cross the river, drive through the other half of the reservation, and exit in Canada — and thus circumvent the normal border-crossing regulations. Local cops keep a watchful eye just outside the reservation’s boundaries, but as long as you don’t look suspicious, they have no reason to stop you and check your trunk, say, to see if you’ve smuggled something across the border.

I’ve made it sound easier than it is, however. I glossed over “cross the river” as if it were a minor step, when in fact it’s the trickiest part. Most of the year, you’d have to take a boat across it. During the winter, it freezes enough to support motor vehicles … usually … in most spots. You would not want to undertake a major trafficking operation unless you were truly desperate, in other words.

That’s the situation our heroine, Ray (Melissa Leo), finds herself in during the Christmas season when the film takes place. A careworn, exhausted woman, Ray has just been abandoned by her husband and left to support their two sons — T.J. (Charlie McDermott), 15, and Ricky (James Reilly), 5 — by herself. She has a job at the dollar store, which probably pays even less than you’d think. She has been striving to buy a new double-wide house to replace the family’s current trailer, but her husband made off with the down payment they’d been saving.

Then she meets Lila (Misty Upham), a young Mohawk woman who lives in an even smaller trailer on the reservation. Lila knows how to earn money transporting immigrants across the border from Canada to the United States, hiding them in a car’s trunk and taking advantage of the reservation’s peculiar geography. Ray is the perfect driver — being a white woman, she’s less likely to be stopped by the state troopers. It’s easy money, and all you gotta do is drive across the frozen river.

The immigrants are from all over the world — China first, then the Middle East, which worries Ray, who wonders if she’s abetting terrorism. Just to be sure, she throws the couple’s bags out on the ice, in case they have, you know, terrorist stuff in them.

Like most ordinary people drawn into lives of crime, Ray is terrified of being caught, and she has no illusions about the nature of the work she’s doing. Her intention is to earn only as much money as she needs, then get out. But like most ordinary mothers, she will do everything necessary to take care of her boys.

This is not a crime thriller. The drama comes not from tension over whether Ray and Lila will get caught (though that’s always a subliminal concern), but from the general precariousness of Ray and Lila’s lives. Ray’s older son, T.J., is bitter about the family’s poverty and is willing to drop out of school and get a job, an offer Ray refuses. He’s also willing to break the law himself, which Ray doesn’t know about. She wouldn’t exactly have the moral high ground on that issue anyway, though at least her crimes aren’t really hurting anyone.

Lila, meanwhile, lives in that tiny, cold trailer on the reservation. When a stray bullet pierces the door, it compromises the structure’s insulation and makes the place almost unlivable. Not that gunfire is a small thing, but most of us don’t expect such comparatively minor damage to so thoroughly ruin our homes.

The filmmaker, Hunt, keeps that theme of homelessness running throughout the film, making it a constant factor in the characters’ decisions. Ray’s family needs a bigger home, and their current one is threatened when T.J. tries to unfreeze a pipe with a welder’s torch. The immigrants are obviously in search of a place to call home, and Ray’s husband ran off in search of greener pastures. The Mohawk reservation is a reminder that entire nations of people have been displaced, and the uneasy interaction between the reservation and the surrounding towns — each has its own police force, and neither has jurisdiction in the other — suggests that no matter how “permanent” these settlements are, they’re still less than ideal. In other words, no one in this film has a real home. “Home” is a fleeting, uncertain prospect. “Home” is also, ultimately, what you make of it, regardless of the physical structure you use.

Melissa Leo and Misty Upham’s natural, unforced performances give the film tremendous strength. They are Everywomen, with motivations we can relate to and dilemmas we can sympathize with, even if — and this is key — we would not necessarily make the same choices they do. The women’s chemistry, first as adversaries, then gradually as friends, increases our affection for them. By the end I felt protective of them, wishing I could do something to help, glad I’m more fortunate than they are. This is a sharp, emotionally engaging drama, and a powerful debut from a new filmmaker.

A- (1 hr., 37 min.; R, two F-words, other moderate profanity; should have been PG-13.)