“Frozen River” cool as ice at Sundance

A while back, I gave you several reasons why I wished I could travel to Utah this year for the Sundance film festival. After the awards ceremony this past weekend, I’m really kicking myself for not finding a way to make it happen. As it turns out, one of the films I was jazzed about, Frozen River, walked away with the Grand Jury Prize for best U.S. drama. The film, written and directed by Courtney Hunt, stars one of my favorite actresses, Melissa Leo.

Frozen River tells the story of a single mother in dire need of cash who falls into a smuggling ring as a means of supporting her family. Her connection to the ring is a Mohawk woman, played by Misty Upham. And they’re smuggling people, not drugs. The title comes from the fact that the ring smuggles illegal immigrants across the frozen St. Lawrence river from Canada into the U.S. Not only did the film earn the Grand Jury Prize, but it also secured a distribution deal following the Sundance showing. And based on the reviews I’ve read, the success of the film is due in large part to Leo and her performance in it.


Exactly what fascinates me about Leo is sort of a mystery, even to me. I think it has to do with the earthy quality of the characters she brings to life. She seems to be able to create characters that have this muted sort of energy; a quiet intensity, if you will. Even back when she played den mother to a bunch of Young Riders, she was leading by example and with a depth beyond the material.

And you already know that I was, and continue to be, enthralled by Det. Kay Howard from Homicide: Life on the Street. Leo took a character originally written for a man and created one of my favorite fictional female cops. (Hmm, I think I sense a list coming on.)

More recently, she won raves for starring opposite Benicio Del Toro in 21 Grams and played neighbor to the haunted Robert DeNiro and Dakota Fanning in Hide and Seek. (Plus, there was that all-too-brief appearance as Winnie Mann, Helena’s ex, on The L Word.) But most of her film work has been in smaller-budget projects like Frozen River. With a Grand Jury Prize from Sundance in the bag, it’s possible that the ice in this river just might be diamonds. I certainly hope so, as it might mean I get more opportunities to be intrigued by what Melissa Leo brings to life on screen. It also means we’ve got another woman with a nice little award in the writer-director pool. Yay for Courtney Hunt!