“Frozen River”


Right now, there’s a lot of attention directed toward the Southern border of the United States .  The reality of illegal immigrants is a social problem at many different levels, for everyone involved. But “ Frozen River ” is a film directed at the Northern border, yes, the one with Canada :  even more vast, even more unguarded, even more fraught with pitfalls.  Literally.  Like driving across frozen water, smuggling a couple of illegal aliens in the trunk, wondering if the ice will hold.

Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) is a single Mom struggling mightily to survive.  Her husband, already an addict in recovery, now has a compulsive gambling problem, and lost the money they’d saved for a new double-wide trailer.  He’s disappeared, and is not likely to show his face anytime soon.  She has a fifteen-year-old son, T.J., and a five-year-old son, Ricky, living with her in a rented single-wide trailer, exposed pipes underneath freezing over, their only luxury a big-screen television which will soon be repossessed.  She’s been working part-time at a retail store for two years, hoping to get on full-time with benefits, but the callow, calloused manager seems to prefer hiring young women, a not-so-subtle ageism that is just one more hardship on top of Ray’s many others.  If she doesn’t come up with more money for the new double-wide, she’ll lose the deposit, along with any hope of ever improving her family’s situation.  She loves her children, but T.J. is old enough to sense her despair, and wants to drop out of school and work to help out, which she will absolutely not allow (because then her own failures would no longer be temporary).  Little Ricky, ever hopeful, just thinks that Santa is going to bring him his favorite toy at Christmas.  As sad as it seems, he just isn’t old enough to catch the pervasive desperation of the rest of the family.  But we all know that if something doesn’t change, that time will come soon enough.

As if things weren’t bad enough, Ray catches someone trying to steal her absent husband’s car.  Lila (Misty Upham) is a Mohawk from the nearby Reservation, trying to take advantage of differing territorial jurisdictions, but she, too, is desperate not for herself, but for her family.  She has a one-year-old whom her late husband’s mother has taken from her, and Lila knows that until she demonstrates a capacity to economically support her son, the Tribal Council will not act in her favor.  So she turns to smuggling illegal immigrants, Asians, mostly, across the St. Lawrence River , forming an unlikely partnership with Ray, who drives her car.  Bottom line, they are willing to do anything to feed their children.  This just happens to be the most accessible thing to them right now.  They don’t think about what they will do if they get caught.  They just believe they have no other choice.

It’s difficult to watch all this grinding poverty, this poignant isolation, and the incredible risks taken in the name of the children, who are the true innocents in all of this. But victims, nonetheless.  Writer/Director Courtney Hunt makes the cold climate and the cold realities and cold interpersonal dynamics seem as real as the frigid ice floes over the St. Lawrence River .   This little story is small in focus, but big on personal impact.


Questions For Discussion:

1)      Is trying to feed a hungry family an excuse for illegal behavior?  Would this be true for single Dads and single Moms equally?

2)      What do you think should be done about illegal immigration?  Do you think the penalties should be more severe for the smugglers, the employers, the landlords, or the immigrants themselves?

3)      Should the rules and the leeway in their application be different for the Northern and the Southern borders?


Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Pastor, Grace Presbyterian Church, Greenville , Texas