Frozen River

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Frozen River
Theatrical release poster
Directed byCourtney Hunt
Written byCourtney Hunt
Produced byHeather Rae
Chip Hourihan
StarringMelissa Leo
Misty Upham
Charlie McDermott
Michael O'Keefe
Mark Boone Junior
CinematographyReed Morano
Edited byKate Willams
Music byPeter Golub
Shahzad Ali Ismaily
Cohen Media Group
Harwood Hunt Productions
Off Hollywood Pictures
Distributed bySony Pictures Classics
Release date
  • August 1, 2008 (2008-08-01)
Running time
97 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
Budget$1 million
Box office$6 million [2]

Frozen River is a 2008 American crime drama film written and directed by Courtney Hunt. The screenplay focuses on two working-class women who smuggle illegal immigrants from Canada to the United States. The film received two Oscar nominations: Best Actress (Melissa Leo) and Best Original Screenplay (Courtney Hunt).


The film is set shortly before Christmas in the North Country of Upstate New York, near the Akwesasne ('Where the Partridge Drums') St. Regis Mohawk Reservation and the border crossing to Cornwall, Ontario. Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) is a discount store clerk struggling to raise two sons with her husband, a compulsive gambler who has disappeared with the funds she had earmarked to finance the purchase of a double-wide mobile home. While searching for him, she encounters Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), a Mohawk bingo-parlor employee who is driving his car, which she claims she found abandoned with the keys in the ignition at the local bus station. The two women, who have both fallen on hard economic times, form a desperate and uneasy alliance and begin smuggling illegal immigrants from Canada into the United States across the frozen St. Lawrence River for $1,200 each.

Ray's older son T.J. wants to find a job and help support the family so they can afford to eat something more substantial than popcorn and Tang. He and his mother clash over whether he should remain in high-school and look after his little brother Ricky or drop out to work. To make matters worse, T.J. sets an outside corner of the trailer afire with a torch in an attempt to unfreeze the water pipe. Lila longs for the day she will be able to reclaim and live with her young son, who was taken from her by her mother-in-law immediately after his birth.

Because the women's route takes them from an Indian reservation in the US to an Indian reserve in Canada, they hope to avoid detection by local law-enforcement. However, their problems escalate when they are asked to smuggle a Pakistani couple and Ray, fearful their duffel bag might contain explosives, leaves it behind in sub-freezing temperatures, only to discover it contained their infant baby when they arrive at their destination. She and Lila retrace their route and find the bag and the baby, which Lila insists is dead, but which she revives moments before being reunited with the baby's parents. The experience leaves her shaken, and she announces she no longer wants to participate in the smuggling operation. But Ray, needing just one more crossing to finance the down payment on her mobile home, coerces her into joining her for one last journey.

They pick up two Asian women from a strip club for crossing. When the club owner tries to short them, Ray successfully threatens him with a gun. When she is re-entering her car, the irate club owner retaliates by shooting Ray in the ear. Shaken, her fast and erratic driving catches the attention of the provincial police. Ray tries to elude capture by crossing the frozen river where one of the wheels of the car breaks through the ice. The four women abandon the vehicle and take refuge at the Indian reservation.

Because the police are demanding a scapegoat, the tribal head decides to excommunicate Lila for five years due to her smuggling history which involved the death of her Mohawk husband. Surprised then saddened by the news, Ray gives in to Lila's pleas to go free for the sake of her children. However, running through the woods, Ray has a fit of conscience and returns. Ray gives her share of money to Lila with instructions for taking care of her (Ray's) sons and seeing through the purchase plans for a mobile home. Ray and the illegal immigrants are surrendered to the police and a trooper speculates she will have to serve four months in jail. Ray calls her son T.J. to explain what has happened.

Lila pushes her way into her mother-in-law's home and reclaims her infant son. She and the baby show up at the Eddy trailer while T.J. is still on the phone with his jailed mother. In a day scene, T.J. completes the welding of a bicycle-propelled carousel bearing his younger brother and Lila's strapped in baby. He pedals the carousel while Lila smiles on. A truck nears carrying the new mobile home.



In an interview screenwriter/director Courtney Hunt conducted shortly before the film's release, she discussed its prevalent theme of a mother's love for her children being a culturally universal trait. She stated the most important moment in her life was the birth of her daughter and how that event made all her other goals lesser priorities. By showing how such intimacy knows no bounds, culturally or socially, Hunt said she hoped her film would enable audiences to break down their assumptions about others around them.[3]

Hunt's husband is from Malone, New York. Whenever the two visited his family they heard stories about Mohawks smuggling cigarettes by driving across the Saint Lawrence River when it freezes.[4] She thought the concept was an interesting subject for a film but had a hard time getting any financial backers because so few people knew about the issue.[5] She met cinematographer Marc Blandori and actress Melissa Leo at the FilmColumbia 2003 Film Festival in Chatham, New York and both agreed to join the project, which prompted some interest from investors. The first effort was a short film shot at Akwesasne near Massena, New York.[6] Hunt showed it at several festival screenings and shopped it to producers until she finally acquired enough funding for a feature film. Frozen River was shot in sub-freezing temperatures on location in Clinton County and Beekmantown and in the area around Plattsburgh over a period of twenty-four days in March 2007.


The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was shown at the MoMA Film Exhibition, the Seattle International Film Festival, the Provincetown International Film Festival, the Nantucket Film Festival, the Melbourne International Film Festival, and the Traverse City Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics paid $500,000 for the rights to distribute the film in North America and some other territories . The film eventually grossed $2,511,476 in limited theatrical release in the United States and $2,621,734 in foreign markets for a total worldwide box office of $5,133,210.[7]

Critical reception[edit]

Critical reception for the film was very positive. Frozen River has an approval rating of 88% on review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, based on 135 reviews, and an average rating of 7.31/10. The website's critical consensus states, "Veteran character actress Melissa Leo delivers a stunning performance in this powerful -- if grim -- indie film".[8] It also has a score of 82 out of 100 on Metacritic, based on 30 critics, indicating "universal acclaim".[9] The film appeared on many lists citing the best films of 2008, including those in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter, the New York Post, The Miami Herald, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, The New York Times, and the Chicago Reader.[10] Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave Frozen River four stars (out of four) and called it "one of those rare independent films that knows precisely what it intends, and what the meaning of the story is",[11] while Stephen Holden wrote in The New York Times on August 1, 2008, that "Leo’s magnificent portrayal of a woman of indomitable grit and not an iota of self-pity makes "Frozen River" a compelling study of individual courage" and "If "Frozen River" is a social realist film, it has no political axes to grind." [12]

Awards and nominations[edit]

Year Ceremony Category Recipients Result
2008 13th Satellite Awards Top 10 Films Frozen River Nominated
Best Film - Drama Frozen River Nominated
Best Actress - Drama Melissa Leo Nominated
Best Screenplay - Original Courtney Hunt Nominated
14th Critics' Choice Awards Best Actress Melissa Leo Nominated
15th Screen Actors Guild Awards Best Female Actor in a Leading Role Melissa Leo Nominated
24th Independent Spirit Awards Best Feature Frozen River Nominated
Best Director Courtney Hunt Nominated
Best Female Lead Melissa Leo Won
Best Supporting Male Charlie McDermott Nominated
Best Supporting Female Misty Upham Nominated
Best First Screenplay Courtney Hunt Nominated
81st Academy Awards Best Actress Melissa Leo Nominated
Best Original Screenplay Courtney Hunt Nominated
2008 Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards Best Actress Melissa Leo Nominated
2008 National Society of Film Critics Awards Best Actress Melissa Leo Nominated
2008 New York Film Critics Circle Awards Best First Film Frozen River Won
Best Actress Melissa Leo Nominated
American Indian Film Festival Best Supporting Actress Misty Upham Won
Central Ohio Film Critics Association Best Actress Melissa Leo Won
Best Supporting Actress Misty Upham Nominated
Best Screenplay - Original Courtney Hunt Nominated
Chicago Film Critics Association Awards 2008 Best Actress Melissa Leo Nominated
Most Promising Filmmaker Courtney Hunt Nominated
Detroit Film Critics Society Best Actress Melissa Leo Nominated
Florida Film Critics Circle Awards 2008 Best Actress Melissa Leo Won
Gotham Independent Film Awards 2008 Best Feature Frozen River Won
Breakthrough Actor Melissa Leo Won
Houston Film Critics Society Awards 2008 Best Actress in a Leading Role Melissa Leo Nominated
Marrakech International Film Festival Best Actress Melissa Leo Won
National Board of Review Awards 2008 Top Independent Films Frozen River Nominated
Best Directorial Debut Courtney Hunt Won
Stockholm International Film Festival Best Film Frozen River Won
Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize - Dramatic Frozen River Won
Toronto Film Critics Association Awards 2008 Best First Feature Frozen River Nominated
Utah Film Critics Association Awards 2008 Best Actress Melissa Leo Won
Best Supporting Actress Misty Upham Nominated

Home media[edit]

Frozen River was released in anamorphic widescreen format on DVD on February 10, 2009. It has an audio track in English and subtitles in French. Bonus features include an audio commentary by screenwriter/director Courtney Hunt and producer Heather Rae, and the original trailer.


  1. ^ "FROZEN RIVER (15)". British Board of Film Classification. 2009-06-29. Retrieved 2012-11-22.
  2. ^ "Frozen River (2008) - Financial Information".
  3. ^ " interview". Archived from the original on 2008-09-22. Retrieved 2008-09-22.
  4. ^ Silverstein, Melissa (2008-08-09). "Interview with Courtney Hunt, Director of Frozen River". Huffington Post. Retrieved 2018-06-04.
  5. ^ Times Union, July 25, 2008[permanent dead link]
  6. ^ "Filming the Frozen River". NCPR. Retrieved 2018-06-04.
  7. ^
  8. ^ "Frozen River".
  9. ^ "Frozen River".
  10. ^ Metacritic 2008 Film Critic Top Ten Lists Archived January 2, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
  11. ^ Ebert, Roger. "Frozen River Movie Review & Film Summary (2008) | Roger Ebert". Retrieved 2018-06-04.
  12. ^ Holden, Stephen (2008-08-01). "Only a Few More Smuggling Days Left Before Christmas? It's Not a Wonderful Life". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2018-06-04.

External links[edit]

Preceded by Sundance Grand Jury Prize: U.S. Dramatic
Succeeded by