After her husband runs off with her savings, Ray Eddy (Leo) and her kids are destitute. Ray unwittingly finds herself in partnership with Mohawk Lila Littlewolf (Upham) as a people smuggler, driving illegal aliens across an iced-over St. Lawrence River bordering Quebec and New York State.
Desperate women driven to do crazy shit: you gotta love ’em! Oscar nominations (Best Actress and Original Screenplay) and the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance for this debut from writer-director Courtney Hunt indicate the quality of work. Without sounding one false note, the film transcends chick flick, melodrama and thriller (though it has fine elements of those) for a compelling, humane drama. The plot particulars may hinge on a very specific locale, but the theme has global resonance.
If the immigrants who climb into the boot of Ray’s (Melissa Leo) car knew how she and her neighbours on the Mohawk Reservation straddling the Canadian-US border live, they would have thought harder before indebting themselves to the thugs who dump them and roughly collect them
on both sides of their journey. Welcome to America! Ray, who doesn’t understand what she’s gotten herself into, and Misty Upham’s Lila, a young widow whose risky business is undertaken to reclaim the baby taken away from her, do not bond in any typical gal-pal sense. They meet at gunpoint when Lila boosts Ray’s car, and stick together out of need. Their conversations are terse. They both come across as cold and unfeeling. And yet the actresses strike a remarkable balance together, and with raw, naked expressiveness emerge sympathetically, even heroically, as beleaguered women who can’t afford to sit around being victims.
Ray’s small American Dream is hardly greedy or delusional. She just wants to get herself and her kids out of their old trailer (a metal shack with a rented TV) and swap it for a new “double wide” version barely distinguishable from a cargo container. She’s hard-working, but can only get part-time shifts at the Yankee One Dollar store. And she’s insistent that her teenager, T. J. (Charlie McDermott), stay in school. In the current economic climate, Ray’s dilemma reverberates with anxieties people all over can relate to. She’s in the fight of her life just to survive. Victory means taking the children out for a burger instead of feeding them popcorn for breakfast and dinner.
Leo is magnificent and Hunt keeps it tightly focussed and real. Every detail rings true, and there’s even beauty, particularly in the nerve-wracking trips across the ice.
Original, sad, suspenseful and involving: the kind of work that helps independent American cinema retain its good name.