Director’s patronizing attitude clouds ‘Frozen River’

Al Alexander

Aren’t poor people grand? Condescending filmmakers like Courtney Hunt seem to think so, painting the destitute as noble and heroic, even when they’re breaking the law in pursuit of their double-wide dreams.

Of course, these haggard masses struggling to put popcorn and Tang on the table are almost always white. They are also oddly articulate, making you seriously wonder why they never obtained solvency.

I tend to group them with the genial homeless, happy hookers and charming criminals who exist only in La-La Land, where artists like Hunt and her full-of-sleet paean to the penniless, “Frozen River,” are deemed socially conscious simply because the characters dress as thrift-store chic as Mary-Kate Olson.

I suspect that’s why “River” was flooded with so much praise when it was awarded top prize at last winter’s Sundance Film Festival. I can envision jury members, sipping martinis and cognac, dressed in designer skiwear, while discussing the movie and how terrible it must be living life without a Bentley or indoor swimming pool: “That unfortunate woman!”

That “woman,” by the way, is unfortunately named Ray Eddy, and she is as strapped for cash as any movie heroine has ever been. Her no-good, addicted-gambler hubby has absconded with the balance due on the new double-wide, leaving Ray and their two kids with nothing but empty cupboards and wallets.

Oh, did I mention Christmas is just days away and the folks down at the Rent-a-Center are threatening to repossess the family’s ratty old TV?

What’s a gal to do? Well, if you’re Ray (Melissa Leo), you leave your kids behind and head for the nearby Mohawk reservation, where – through a series of eye-rolling contrivances – you meet a young Indian woman (Misty Upham, looking more like a grade-schooler than a mother) who introduces you to the profitable industry of smuggling foreigners from Canada into the U.S. by driving on top of the frozen St. Lawrence River.

At first, both Upham’s Lila and the idea of circumventing ICE over ice repulses Ray, who holds as much compassion for non-white foreigners as Lou Dobbs. But in this granola-bar circus of feelings and conscience you just know sooner or later Ray is going to acquiesce, especially when she learns she can earn thousands in a matter of days.

Just pray the ice holds and that flirty New York state trooper (Michael O’Keefe) minds his business, otherwise Ray can count on trading that new double-wide in for either a cell or a watery grave.

If this all sounds pretentious and silly, it’s because it is. In fact, it’s downright laughable at times. But it’s also incensing, both in Hunt’s patronizing attitude toward the less fortunate, and her utter lack of sympathy for the Chinese and Pakistani refugees who risk far more than Ray could ever imagine.

Hunt sees them as little more than luggage, tossed into Ray’s tiny, freezing-cold trunk and deposited into the hands of some very unsavory-looking characters. What happens to them after Ray collects her wads of cash?

That’s the movie you end up wanting to see, because the illegal immigrants – along with their intents, motivations and fears – are the film’s most compelling aspect.

The film didn’t make me care about Ray, and that’s despite Leo’s outstanding rendering of her. In fact, Leo is so good, you feel sorrier for her than Ray. She deserves better, and hopefully the richly deserved praise she’s drawing will bring her parts far more liquid than “Frozen River.”

“Frozen River” (R for some language): Cast includes Melissa Leo, Misty Upham and Michael O’Keefe. Written and directed by Courtney Hunt. 2 stars.

The Patriot Ledger