Sunday, February 22, 2009

Frozen River, the Oscars, North Country Realism

Frozen River is nominated in two categories of tonight’s Academy Awards: best actress (the very deserving Melissa Leo) and best screenplay (by the equally deserving Courtney Hunt, who is also the film’s director).

If there were awards for North Country realism, Frozen River would run away with the all-time top honor.

The independent movie, filmed in Plattsburgh in 2007 on a budget of less than $1 million, has won 21 prizes, including the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, where Quentin Tarantino called it “one of the most exciting thrillers I am going to see this year.”

The plot centers on two single mothers — one Mohawk, from the Akwesasne Reservation, and one white, living in Massena — on the financial brink. They team up to smuggle illegal immigrants across the St. Lawrence River in the trunk of a car. There is suspense inherent in driving across ice, as a North Country audience knows all too well.

Director Hunt’s husband is from Malone, and her familiarity with local detail is abundant, down to the dirty snowbanks, rez radio, Quebec strip bars, Price Chopper, Yankee One Dollar, purple ties on State Troopers, and WPTZ weatherman Tom Messner giving a perky forecast of 30-below on a Rent-to-Own TV that’s always on inside the trailer of Ray Eddy, the character portrayed by Leo.

The movie also examines the jurisdictional ambiguities of the smuggling economy at Akwesasne, a nation unto itself straddling the U.S.-Canada border.

Other efforts in the bleak-North-Country genre (including an adaptation of Russell Banks’s The Sweet Hereafter, and Vermonter Jay Craven’s Northeast Kingdom movies) seem to sacrifice verisimilitude for art or convenience. Perhaps the truest antecedent for Frozen River is the ice-crossing scene in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, filmed in Port Henry in 1927 (excerpts can be seen here).

Frozen River was released on DVD earlier this month. Trivia/spoiler note: Michael O’Keefe, the actor portraying the State Trooper, played Danny Noonan in Caddyshack 29 years ago.

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Mary Thill

Mary Thill lives in Saranac Lake and has worked alternately in journalism and Adirondack conservation for three decades.




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