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Frances Ha

Greta Gerwig as Frances

Noah Baumbach’s films are typically quirky and off-beat.  Rather than detailing extensive narratives of modern life and relationships, he focuses on the smaller, episodic moments of interaction and reflection that become the essential stuff of our lives.  Baumbach delivers exposition by accretion, typically dropping the viewer into a situation and a set of relationships illustrated by dialogue, reactions, and interactions on to which he builds in a series of scenes that meander in various directions simultaneously.

The Squid and The Whale (2005) and Greenberg (2010) both offer portraits of families and relationships neither heroic nor exceptionally eccentric; Margot at the Wedding (2007) is darker and rougher in its treatment of family politics.  But in many ways, his goal as a filmmaker seems to engage us with stories about people who are in most ways ordinary—not exceedingly beautiful or handsome, not necessarily paradigms of morality or values, but people who skew intellectual and artistic and relatively class-privileged, who muddle along trying to do the least amount of damage to themselves and others.

In his latest, Frances Ha, co-written with Greta Gerwig, who stars, Baumbach offers a character study in black-and-white (and beautiful shades of detailed gray, which thematizes the film’s narrative of ambivalence and uncertainty).  Similar at first to Lena Dunham’s now iconic television series, Girls, Frances Ha focuses on the post-college graduation relationship of best friends Frances (Gerwig) and Sophie (Mickey Sumner) as they suffer through that indeterminate phase of their lives when possibilities loom large, while at the same time, prescribing a dose of reality and its limitations. 

Frances (Gerwig) and Sophie (Sumner)

Frances and Sophie, as they agree, are like a long-term lesbian couple that’s stopped having sex.  As roommates in a small apartment in Brooklyn, they’re physically intimate, sleeping together chastely and conveniently, sharing a bathroom and their ablutions, and talking about sex with men with the off-hand frank detail of women for whom heterosexuality seems given, but not necessarily interesting or compelling.  In fact, when Frances’s boyfriend, Dan (Michael Esper), invites her to move in with him (ostensibly to help raise the odd hairless cats he plans to adopt), Frances demurs, explaining that she’s more committed to Sophie and couldn’t possibly walk out on their lease together.  Dan and Frances break up shortly after.  With little fuss or bother, they agree that their relationship hasn’t been working for a while, and step back from the precipice of commitment to foreclose their future together.  This is how relationships play out for Millenials, I guess.

Likewise, despite Frances’s willingness to throw over a boyfriend to hang on to Sophie, Sophie has her eye on a Tribeca apartment that she’s willing to share with a woman she doesn’t even like, all for the geographic cachet.  She asks her parents for help with the brokers’ fees, and leaves Frances in the lurch, prompting her best friend’s peripatetic peregrinations parking with a host of other acquaintances until the film’s surprisingly redemptive ending.  Frances couch-surfs with Lev (Adam Driver, as quirky as ever but with his out-sized sexual appetites less graphically represented than with the character he plays on Girls) and Benji (Michael Zegen, sweet as the more benign, self-deprecating of the two male friends with whom Frances temporarily lives).


Frances and the boys (Gerwig, Zegen, and Driver)

She moves on to stay with Rachel (Grace Gummer, supercilious and aloof, whether as the character or as an actor, it’s difficult to discern), a fellow dancer in a local company who reluctantly and very temporarily lets Frances into her life.  Using a credit card she’s sent in the mail, Frances also takes a misbegotten trip to Paris for a weekend, sleeping through half of it in the cushy apartment of Rachel’s aunt and uncle, whom Frances has at once charmed, bemused, and repelled at a dinner party at which she’s clearly the odd girl out.  The awkward dinner table scene is a wonderful illustration of Frances’s erratic social skills; sometimes she’s engaged and articulate, but among these more established grown-ups, Frances seems incoherent and painfully unformed.

Rachel (Gummer) and Frances (Gerwig)

Gerwig plays Frances as a captivating mix of hopeful and abject, the perfect Baumbach heroic foil.  She wants to be an artist, but it’s clear her talents as a dancer, exuberant as they are, are small.  The dance company to which she apprentices, led by Colleen (Charlotte d’Amboise as the empathetic but straight-talking older woman who influences Frances’s choices), can’t make a place for Frances, but does save her in the end, pointing her life in a better-suited, more sensible and artistically plausible direction.  Frances’s sophistication is nascent, too.  In the way of many young women who graduate from prestigious liberal arts colleges (in this case, Vassar, obvious but unnamed until the credits), Frances thinks on her feet, sorting through the value of the great books she’s read and the expectation that’s been fed to her that she’s destined for greatness herself.

That Frances could be in fact ordinary is the horror that passes over her face frequently in Baumbach’s close examination, tempered only by the equally terrifying notion that she could also be lonely and alone.  Sophie’s blithe rejection devastates Frances.  And that Sophie leaves her for a man who’s beneath Frances’s contempt makes her friend’s departure that much harder to bear.

As Sophie, Sumner is all gawky elbows and knees, the sharp planes of her long face contrasting beautifully with Gerwig’s more ample features.  Sophie wears over-sized round glasses that only emphasize her face’s length and angularity, giving her a look both pseudo-sophisticated and strangely like a 10-year-old trying on her older sister’s accessories.  Sumner nicely plays Sophie’s mercurial temperament, her unintentional cruelty to her best friend presented not as emotional but only logistical.

Though she seems the one who has-it-all (that horrible, once again topical yardstick of success for some American women), Sophie’s unhappiness slowly dawns on Frances.  Sophie leaves her job at Random House to follow her fiancée, Patch (Patrick Heusinger), to Japan, where he’s been appointed to a powerful job with Goldman Sachs.  She’s bored and dissatisfied, but can’t seem to shake the obligatory marriage to the successful WASP-y man that comes with her pedigree, despite the fact that she’s Jewish.  When Frances realizes that Sophie won’t revise her fatal choices, Frances goes about saving herself instead. 

Couch surfing

Frances Ha is a sweet and often sad investigation of young female friendships, a coming-of-age story in which Frances accepts the compromises necessary to accommodate the unpredictability of those you love and the disappointments you find in yourself.  Frances isn’t particularly flawed—that is, she comes from a secure and loving family, though they can’t provide the financial safety net that her Bohemian friends seem to expect and accept.   She’s smart and talented enough, if often socially awkward in the self-centered way of those who’ve drunk the Kool-Aid of undergraduate experiences that spoon-feed them their own exceptionalism.  But watching her find her own agency and become the artistic and emotional heroine of her own very reasonable life is a real pleasure.

Gerwig herself is an unconventional and appealing leading lady.  She’s not wraith-like or svelte in the way of typical 20-something white romantic-lead actresses (even comic ones), and her face is pretty in an off-center, much more interesting way.  One of the film’s most exhilarating moments comes when Gerwig as Frances is filmed in a long, high tracking shot running and dancing down the streets of New York, pirouetting through crosswalks and artfully avoiding other pedestrians as she moves to her own drummer. 

Dancing through New York

Those moments of happy unselfconsciousness and revealing grace predict where Frances ends up in Frances Ha.  Bathed in the warm, white light of confidence and hope, she becomes an unusual and lovely heroine.  And as Feminist Spectator 2 notes, Frances Ha is also a wonderful New York City film—it’s almost as though it switches the focus from Woody Allen’s typical New York schlemiel to the young, impressionable, non-Jewish girlfriends he always dated in those movies, and sees the city from her perspective.  Thanks to Baumbach and Gerwig’s empathetic, sweet script, that’s a real gift.

The Feminist Spectator

Liberal Arts

Josh Radnor wrote, directed, and stars in Liberal Arts, a lovely film about an emotionally “stunted” 35-year-old man who visits his alma mater and realizes he’s never really grown up.  But it’s also a film about coming to terms with aging in the best possible way, by imagining a life lived simply, with love and respect and affection for who we’ve been and who we might become.

It’s also a film about reading books and talking about them, about loving poetry and music and the way artists can transform how we understand our lives.  Liberal Arts is a paean to the delights of literature and music as much as it is a tribute to the life of a mind nestled in a happily loved body.  And for all that, it’s light, funny, and sweet.

Jesse (Radnor) is an admissions officer at a college in New York, where an opening montage shows him repeating a similar sales pitch to potential students, all from the same position in the same seat in his same old office.  He’s clearly stuck and uninspired, even if his position keeps him close to the college days he remembers as among the best of his life.

When a beloved former professor invites Jesse to his retirement dinner back on his old campus, Jesse jumps at the opportunity to return.  He’s just broken up with a girlfriend and some thug stole his clothes from his Brooklyn Laundromat.  Mostly, he haunts his local bookstore, where he reads the last few pages of every book he buys, which he stacks with many others on his bedside table.  He lives his solitary life more in books than in the world.

Radnor, the joy of reading on the quad

Jesse comes alive when he returns to his old college in Ohio.  (Though it goes unmentioned until the final credits, the film was shot at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, where Radnor went to school.) The camera loves the idyllic, green, pristine campus as much as Jesse does.  He can’t stop himself from jumping on the benches that line the quad’s walkways, or from rolling on the grass, or from grinning at students throwing Frisbees and reading on the lawn.

His visit back, though, underlines Jesse’s long-brewing mid-life crisis.  His retiring professor, Peter (Richard Jenkins in an empathetic, wrenching performance), insists he’s thrilled to be done with faculty meetings, but sobers the mood at his own farewell dinner when his mixed emotions barely allow him to speak.  His colleagues leave the party embarrassed by his anguish, but Peter can’t read their cues, and spends an excruciating scene trying to persuade the department chair (a man he hired twenty years earlier) to let him teach for several more semesters.

But Peter has already been replaced by a hire fresh out of graduate school, leaving the older man to confront a life that feels unmoored and unfamiliar after decades on the faculty.  He tells Jesse that the world’s dirty secret is that no one ever really grows up.  Peter and Jesse both feel like they’re still nineteen, despite physical evidence otherwise.

Happy back at college with Zibby (Olsen) and Jesse (Radnor)

If Peter represents the end of a certain life line, the undergraduate Zibby (the magnificent Elizabeth Olsen) seduces Jesse with his own nostalgia for beginnings.  She actually is nineteen, though she says she feels more “advanced,” and is partly attracted to Jesse for the jump-start he promises on her own life’s journey.

Their kindred spirits seem to dissolve their age difference.  Zibby shares her new love of classical music with Jesse, who finds Beethoven and Rossini transforming his quotidian New York City habits when he returns from Ohio.  They hand-write letters to one another; Radnor films them separately delighting in their prose, as they court one another with old-fashioned pen, paper, and art-fueled feelings.

Although he’s drawn to Zibby, Jesse can’t help doing the math when their relationship heats up.  With a sixteen year span between then, Jesse is embarrassed by his attraction to a young woman who wasn’t even born when he was a teenager.  But he follows his heart, returning to Ohio at Zibby’s request, until she asks him to spend the night with her.  When she admits that she’s a virgin, her sexual inexperience forces Jesse to articulate moral and ethical boundaries that help him embrace his own adulthood.

Olsen and Radnor, splendor in the grass

Jesse also meets Dean (John Magaro) on campus, a student known as brilliant but troubled, who was recently hospitalized because of a “manic” episode.  When Jesse notices Dean reading a hefty paperback in the local coffee shop, they share their admiration for the author (who’s left unnamed but is mostly likely David Foster Wallace, and the book most likely Infinite Jest).  Jesse is as drawn to Dean as he is to Libby, for similar but different reasons, and offers the boy brotherly attention that winds up saving Dean’s life.

As Jesse helps guide Zibby and Dean’s choices, he remains influenced by his own mentors.  Peter is undone by his choice to retire from a school that’s been his privilege and his prison for nearly 40 years.  Another of Jesse’s former professors, Judith Fairfield (a terrifically tart Alison Janney), who transformed him by teaching him Romantic poetry and 18th century British literature, turns out to be embittered by her own career in the isolated small town.  She seduces Jesse at the local bar, brings him home for quick sex, and then immediately boots him out of her bed while she lingers over a scotch and a cigarette.  With Peter and Judith, Radnor deftly draws the pros and cons of small-town college life.

Radnor, Janney, Jenkins, and Olsen

In some ways, Jesse returns to campus as a teacher himself.  When he sees that Libby is reading Twilight for what she insists is just fun, he reads the book himself so that he can persuade her why it’s a terrible waste of her time.  But when Dean tries to kill himself, he prescribes the Twilight series to the re-hospitalized boy, recommending that Dean abandon the post-modern author who committed suicide himself.

Part of the film’s pleasure is the joy Jesse takes in talking about books, music, and poetry.  The skillful script demonstrates how ideas matter for these characters, not in a My Dinner with Andre sort of way, but as a palpable, formative, moving part of their lives.  Jesse, Zibby, and Dean are all looking for models, ways of moving through the world with dignity, love, and respect, and they find inspiration in literature and music.

Radnor draws with affection the contrast between New York, where Jesse moves through crowded, over-stimulating streets with a book opened in his hand, and Ohio, where lush cornfields roll by his rental car and the campus seems to resonate with deep thought.  Radnor creates a full sense of place in Liberal Arts, capturing the quiet beauty of a small college town alongside the bustle of New York.  Scenes between Jesse and Zibby at the college coffee shop and bookstore, in the college chapel, and on the stage in the college theatre all pregnant with the possibilities of young people just starting out their lives.

By the film’s end, Jesse finds a bit of Ohio in New York by dating a clerk at his local bookstore (sweetly, simply played by Elizabeth Reaser) who loves books as much as he does, and who worries that she, too, leads her life through the page more than through her own agency.

Cautious chemistry, Olsen and Radnor

Radnor and Olsen perform Jesse and Zibby’s chemistry with warm intimacy and a precise if often unarticulated current of what’s at stake in a relationship neither one of them can really afford to launch, despite how suited they seem for one another.  Olsen is a young actor to watch; her terrific performance in Liberal Arts follows her breakout role in Martha Macy May Marlene (2011), in which she played a young woman brainwashed by a religious cult who manages to break free but can’t quite come to terms with resuming her life.  Her quirky honesty and luminously present performance in MMMM was as filled with palpable, inchoate pain as her work in Liberal Arts is with a determined, intelligent, if still-young power.

I don’t watch How I Met Your Mother, the television show on which Radnor came to fame, and I haven’t seen his first movie, happythankyoumoreplease (2010).  But I found myself enchanted by his hapless, sweet, sincere man-boy performance as Jesse.  I smiled through much of the film, recognizing with my own affection his portrait of campus life in a small liberal arts college.

I also appreciate how the script crafts Jesse’s relationships with other men, from his mentor, Peter, to the melancholic Dean.  Nat (Zac Efron), an enigmatic free spirit given to speaking in aphorisms who Jesse meets wandering across the campus at night, seems a bit off tone.  But Efron and Radnor perform their scenes, too, with casual warmth that models different ways for men to be with one another on screen.

Jason Segel in Jeff, Who Lives at Home

Liberal Arts joins the growing genre of films about sensitive men approaching middle-age who struggle to find their way in a culture that dictates certain versions of white masculine success they can’t (or won’t) emulate.  Jesse reminds me of Jason Segel (who also performs on How I Met Your Mother) in the wonderful indie film Jeff, Who Lives at Home (written and directed by brothers Jay and Mark Duplass) in which Segel plays a mournful, stuck, not-so-young man who lives in his mother’s basement, looking for signs about how he should lead his life.

Jesse and Jeff also remind me of Jack (Mark Duplass) in writer/director Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister.  They’re all white straight men approaching the end of their youth who struggle to reject the patriarchal privilege of their race, gender, and class, and who try very hard to figure out what it means to be ethical and good.

Mark Duplass, in Your Sister's Sister

Theirs are stories of existential crisis over how men like them might escape the confines of conventional American masculinity.  Radnor’s, Segel’s, and Duplass’s characters try to craft soft, warm-hearted gender performances because they’re so anxious not to be the bad guys.  These films seem born of feminism, and the sensitivity and sweetness of the characters and the screenplays that draw them give me hope for how white straight masculinity can be re-envisioned at the movies.

In the last scene of Liberal Arts, Jesse and Ana (Reaser), his new girlfriend, imagine being old—not necessarily together, although clearly, they’ve found love and affection for one another.  But they imagine themselves and each other, he with a paunch and baggy pants, she with long grey hair worn in a ponytail and lots of wrinkles on her face.  They snuggle together, each within their own imaginings, as the film fades out on a lovely note of comfort in a vision that living until you’re old might in itself be an art.

The Feminist Spectator

Frozen River

Courtney Hunt’s film Frozen River is a quietly moving examination of lives blinkered by poverty in a small town in upstate New York, close to the Canadian border. As the local economy withers away, residents of the town and those on the nearby Mohawk reservation turn to illegally smuggling immigrants into the country as a way to turn a quick buck.

Melissa Leo plays Ray Eddy, a woman whose husband has run off with the balloon payment due on the double-wide trailer they’ve been saving to buy. The film starts with Ray sitting in the passenger seat of her car, wearing a worn, pink chenille bathrobe. The car is parked outside her rusty single-wide mobile home, which sits precariously, isolated on an abandoned, grassless lot in the middle of the nowhere where the surrounding town is already dying.

The camera moves in for an extreme close-up of Ray’s face, scrutinizing every pore and inch of her rough red skin, worn from smoke and worry. Unexpected tears suddenly spill out of her eyes, while she blows smoke from her mouth.Her tears flow without a drop of self-pity; they release something that lets her pull herself together and go back into the house to attend to her two sons. T.J., the teenaged boy (Charlie McDermott), watches over his five-year-old brother; he can’t bear to see him suffer the disappointments T.J. already knows are in store. The younger boy lives happily ignorant of their poverty, as both Ray and T.J. struggle to keep his world intact.

At the film’s start, Ray’s husband has just left, and not for the first time. While the boys are in school, she goes to look for him at the Bingo parlor on the nearby Mohawk reservation, where wary locals refuse to help her. In the parking lot, Ray sees Lila, a young Native woman, driving her husband’s car.When Ray confronts her, Lila says she found it with the keys in it at the bus station, and later mentions she saw the car’s owner getting on a southbound bus. Ray knows her husband is headed to Atlantic City; she also knows the money is irretrievably gone.

Ray’s initial interactions with Lila play out in icy recriminations, as neither woman has much sympathy for the other. Their equally desperate straits make them natural competitors, but they’re both smart enough to realize they’d be better off as collaborators. The car holds value for Lila, because she needs a vehicle to participate in a smuggling ring that shepherds illegal immigrants across the St. Lawrence River, frozen solid in the bitter winter. Once they see that they can help one another, they strike up a situational relationship of convenience. How it changes propels the film into surprising emotional territory.

Lila is implacably calm about the smuggling operation into which she initiates Ray. Lila knows everything: how much it costs to be smuggled into the States; how long the immigrants have to work until they pay off their debt to the people who bring them in; how much time you have to serve if you get caught running an illegal; and how much they make for each smuggling run. But Lila needs a car and she also needs someone who can see. Her ill-fitted glasses are too uncomfortable to wear. But she worries that the smugglers will cheat her, and makes sure that Ray counts their money at the beginning and end of every trip.

Lila lives in circumstances even more humble than Ray’s; her trailer is a one-room camper, abandoned in deep, snow covered woods. An unexplained crime has destroyed Lila’s reputation on the reservation. Something happened that resulted in her young husband’s death, which prompts the tribal council to collude with Lila’s mother-in-law to take away Lila’s one-year-old child. Lila watches the baby, hiding in the bushes outside her mother-in-law’s house, leaving money for them in potato chip canisters she quietly props by their door.

Because Ray has the car and Lila has the knowledge, the two women make a business deal. They drive together across the frozen river to still another ramshackle mobile home, rolling across the ice to where the smuggler keeps illegal immigrants waiting to be ferried into the U.S. Ray and Lila load two of these people into their trunk at a time and drive back on the ice to the unwatched border. When they get off the river, they drive through a portion of the route watched by a state trooper. The tensest moment of the trip is when they look to see if he follows. Lila tells Ray bitterly on their first trip, “He won’t stop you, you’re white.”

Throughout the film, Ray forces herself into situations in which she’s singular—the only white woman, the only working mother, the only woman who’s not a stripper or an alien in the Canadian club they visit in the film’s climactic scene to collect their last load of illegal immigrants. She handles herself with incredible resolve and aplomb, once she decides to participate. She and Lila clear $600 for each trip they make; the money is generous and easy for someone who works long hours, standing on her feet for a minimum wage that amounts to much less.

Unsavory men run the smuggling operation. One is a hirsute, brutal Canadian who owns the strip club; the other is the long-haired Native man in the trailer on the river, who takes one look into Ray’s car and tells Lila, “I don’t like to deal with white women.” But Ray needs the money and can’t afford to bristle at the racism she suffers. After all, Ray is racist, too.

Hunt’s film carefully calibrates the dual oppressions of being poor and white or Native American in a country in which there are fewer and fewer social service nets. Without her husband, Ray needs to earn twice as much. But she works as a clerk at the local Dollar Value store, where her manager is an unctuous much younger white man who refuses to put her on the schedule fulltime after she’s worked dependably for two years. But he lets another, younger, prettier female employee come in late and keep much more lax work habits. Ageism also works against Ray and her struggle to feed her kids.

T.J. complains about eating popcorn and drinking Tang for breakfast and dinner. Ray searches for coins in the couch pillows, meting out the few quarters and dimes she can scrape together so that the boys can buy themselves lunches at school. T.J. wants to leave high school and get a job, but Ray insists he continue his education. She’s steely in her resolve that he’ll do better, that he’ll somehow transcend the circumstances in which she’s raising him.

Ray hasn’t yet acquiesced to her situation. Every act is motivated by her dream of buying the double-wide trailer with three bedrooms, a Jacuzzi in the master, and wall-to-wall carpeting. At the film’s start, the new house is being delivered on a flatbed truck that pulls right up to the field where the old one sits, desolate. But since her husband has absconded with the cash, Ray doesn’t have the final payment. The angry trailer salesman drives the truck off, telling her he won’t come out again.

Ray wants that home. The film respects that the double-wide is the apogee of the better life toward which she can stride. Frozen River isn’t a fairy tale. But its clear-eyed understanding of Ray and Lila’s plight insures that we don’t pity either character. Their part of upstate New York is forsaken and barren, but it has a brutal, chilled beauty that makes the landscape look like a Catherine Opie painting of strangely symmetrical, subtly colorful ice-fishing huts on a frozen lake.

Ray isn’t asking for hand-outs; she isn’t even really blaming her husband. She understands he’s sick: “He has an addiction,” she tells her son with clenched teeth. They settle in at the end of their evenings to have important conversations as they look beyond one another, staring at the television while they talk about how they’re going to get through the next day.

The son substitutes for his father, even though he, too, is still a child. T.J. makes crank calls to swindle unsuspecting elderly people out of $29 and their credit card numbers, telling them they’ve been left an inheritance for which he needs their information to process the small fee before he releases their windfalls. His own anxious ploy for cash preys on the desperation of the people he reaches, extending the cycle of poverty and despair and determination to survive by your wits.

T.J. isn’t scamming for drug money or alcohol, or anything about which a young boy with slightly more means might scheme. He’s trying to pitch in, since Ray won’t let him pull his weight and work for the few dollars of extra cash that might mean real food on their plates. Ray has rented a flat-screen television from a place called “Rent to Buy.” When the store calls to say if she doesn’t make her payment, they’re coming to take it away, T.J. frantically plots to find the money, so that his little brother won’t be left without his meager entertainment. These quotidian crises propel this drama, and yet they generate surprisingly ominous suspense.

Hunt produces a narrative that could be told much more conventionally. For instance, when a state trooper comes to their trailer at the film’s end, looking for T.J., a different sort of film-maker could succumb to cliché and have him haul the boy to jail. In Frozen River, the officer brings along the elderly woman T.J. swindled, asking only that the boy apologize face to face for what he did and that he not do it again. The law here isn’t the enemy—the troopers (including Michael O’Keefe, nicely underplaying as the officer whose interactions with Ray over the course of the story determine her fate) find themselves employed among people whose actions are motivated by the extremity of their poverty, not by evil.

Likewise, Ray’s future comes as no surprise, but how it’s handled is humane and forgiving. For someone managing such a hard-scrabble life, she finds reserves of compassion and understanding that model a hopeful extension of conventional kinship systems across race, ethnicity, and class. On the other hand, Ray isn’t portrayed a saint. She deflects any empathy she might receive from the other characters as well as from spectators. On one of their smuggling trips, Ray carries a Pakistani couple in her trunk, a man and a woman who have a duffle bag they insist Ray and Lila carry inside the car. Ray doesn’t know what “Paki” means when Lila refers to their passengers, or where Pakistan is when Lila explains.

The mysterious package makes Ray uneasy, and she decides to leave it on the icy river halfway through the trip. When they arrive at the roadside motel where the illegal immigrants are passed along to the next operative in the seedy smuggling ring, delivered into a life of servitude working for the people who bring them over, the Pakistani couple is distraught about the abandoned bag.For good reasons, Ray and Lila return to the river in the glacial cold of a very dark night to retrieve it.

Ray makes mistakes; she’s not worldly; she’s racist; she has a gun and she’s more than willing to use it. But her innate intelligence and her sharp survival skills make her a compelling, moving study in economic determination. Leo’s performance—for which she received a richly deserved Academy Award nomination—is unsparing and vulnerable. She brings a transparency to her performance that lets you see Ray deliberately make each of her impossible decisions, and track her commitment to seeing them through.

Leo registers the injustices she confronts with bitter knowledge, but never with self-pity. There’s no wallowing in her performance as Ray, just a deep willingness to bring this woman dignity and finally, understanding. Each of the central performances is equally unsparing and natural. Misty Upham, as Lila, has the same blank affect as Elaine Miles, the Native American woman who played Marilyn on the television series Northern Exposure in the early 1990s.Lila is perhaps a bit of a stereotype, as the unemotional, inexpressive Native American who nonetheless observes and comments dryly but perceptively.

But the character’s back-story and her uneasy relationship to the Mohawk territory where she clearly lives as an outsider lets Lila exceed stock. Her determination to retrieve the baby that was stolen from her fuels her own trips back and forth across the border. One of her most painful scenes shows her holed up in her tiny, snow encrusted camper, startled awake when the container in which she’s been leaving money for her mother-in-law and her baby is thrown against her thin tin door with all her money still rolled up inside.

Frozen River details the kind of desperation that drives good people to do bad things. The movie is as suspenseful as a James Bond film, but the drama here is all about the struggle to survive and the most human of emotions. When a connection is finally made, no one lives happily every after, but they do manage to pool their wits and their wiles enough to survive. For these two disenfranchised women and three young boys, that’s admirable enough.

The Feminist Spectator

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