Melissa Leo should be the Oscar front-runner

Posted Feb. 05, 2009, at 6:46 p.m.

On DVD and Blu-ray disc

On DVD and Blu-ray disc

FROZEN RIVER, written and directed by Courtney Hunt, 97 minutes, rated R.

Courtney Hunt’s first feature film, “Frozen River,” stars Melissa Leo in an Academy Award-nominated performance for Best Actress as Ray Eddy, a mother of two boys who lives along the wilds that separate upstate New York from the Canadian border.

As the title suggests, the movie opens in winter, the snow and ice are deep, and in this area pockmarked by hardship and poverty, Ray is struggling to make it in the wake of her husband’s recent disappearance.

It’s not that he’s gone missing, really — Ray knows he’s not that far away. Her husband is an addict on another gambling binge, blowing the money they saved so the family could have a better life in the new double-wide trailer that’s just arrived onsite as the movie begins. Only now, it must be sent back because Ray can’t afford to pay for it.

For her, this is just one humiliation in a movie laced with them. But Ray, whose face is creviced with the sort of worry, despair and determination that has stolen away her youth, nevertheless has the capacity to keep going in spite of the odds stacked against her. Regardless of what it takes to survive, she is a survivor in a movie about survival. Tough choices abound here, but with homelessness close at hand, a 5-year-old son who expects Santa to visit soon, and a 15-year-old son faced with just how quickly life can turn, sometimes one has to do what one has to do.

In this case, Ray’s life unspools at a bingo parlor, where she knows her husband is inside wasting their money. Trouble is, Ray has no money of her own to get through the doors and pull him out. When she’s told to leave, she notes a young Mohawk woman named Lila (Misty Upham) getting into Ray’s husband’s car and driving off. Having none of that, Ray chases after her, with the short of it coming down to this — a tense relationship forms between them, deals are made and the stakes, as they say, are high.

Each woman is broke. In order to make some quick cash, Lila leads Ray into another world, one that involves smuggling illegal aliens across the questionably frozen St. Lawrence River that separates the U.S. from Canada.

It’s all just as shady as you’d expect, not to mention dangerous, particularly since every time Ray and Lila cross back into the States with immigrants sandwiched in the trunk, there’s always one cop waiting in his truck at the border.

Ray passes him with fear, but Lila, who has been broken by racism long ago, is calm. “Don’t worry about him,” she says. “He won’t bother you. You’re white.”

And so begins the element of racial tension that ribbons throughout the movie, deepening it in ways that are unexpected, complex and troubling. Moments are harrowing; none of it feels scripted. Assisting to that end are the great performances given by each actress.

Leo is terrific here, so good that it’s she who should be headlining the Oscar race, not the better-known Streep, Hathaway, Winslet and Jolie. As for Upham, who joins Leo in being so natural onscreen, you’d swear there wasn’t a camera on her, where is her nomination for Best Supporting Actress? She is outstanding in this movie. Why wasn’t she considered?

When it comes to the Academy Awards, which has a shameful record when it comes to recognizing the work of minorities — particularly Native Americans — the irony is that in this movie whose focus is so specifically on race, you’re left with little choice but to wonder.

Grade: A

Also on DVD and Blu-ray disc

NICK AND NORAH’S INFINITE PLAYLIST, directed by Peter Sollett, written by Lorene Scafaria, 90 minutes, rated PG-13.

Peter Sollett’s “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” tells a familiar tale and it tells it well. It serves two demographics — those who remember a time in their lives when running around New York City — or any city, for that matter — until all hours of the night could lead to an unexpected chance at romance, and those now in their late teens and early 20s who are just finding that out.

Screenwriter Lorene Scafaria based her script on Rachel Cohn and David Levithan’s book, and what she and Sollett have pulled from it is a movie of surprising restraint — at least when it comes to the affections that bloom between its main characters, Nick (Michael Cera) and Norah (Kat Dennings), two shy teens from New Jersey who have a similar love for music and a quick, understated wit that suggests a fine pairing might be at hand during one chaotic night in Manhattan.

In this movie, it’s the supporting characters who provide the antics and the energy, which is a shrewd move on Sollett’s part because it allows Nick and Norah to generate something real during the brief time we spend with them onscreen.

Some will argue that the movie is too slight to be significant and that its characters don’t possess enough depth to be interesting, but they’re missing the point. The movie is a slice-of-life vignette designed to offer only a glimpse into something deeper. We enter into it on the verge of one memorable evening, we observe what transpires within that evening, and then we leave the characters on the cusp of change in what you sense will be a more profound story that will play offscreen.

Echoes of Scorsese’s “After Hours” are obvious, but the movie has a sweetness and a relevancy all its own. It’s a movie that understands its characters and their generation, it refuses to condescend to either, and so it just goes along with both, following Nick, Norah and company through the highs and lows of one of those eventful evenings you somehow get through, and tend to remember with fondness long after it has passed.

Grade: B+

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and archive of hundreds of movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Mondays, Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle, as well as on bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

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Renting a DVD? BDN film critic Christopher Smith can help. Below are his grades of recent releases. Those in bold print are new to stores this week.

Appaloosa — B

Baby Mama — B

Bangkok Dangerous — D

Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian — B-

The Dark Knight — A

Deception — D+

Definitely, Maybe — B+

Dr. Seuss? Horton Hears a Who! — B-

The Duchess — B+

Eagle Eye — D

Forbidden Kingdom — B-

Forgetting Sarah Marshall — B-

Get Smart: DVD, Blu-ray — C-

Hancock — C-

The Happening — B

Hellboy II: The Golden Army — B+

Igor — C-

The Incredible Hulk — B+

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull — B-

Iron Man — A-

Kit Kittredge: An American Girl — B+

Leatherheads — B-

Mamma Mia! — B+

My Best Friend’s Girl — D

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist — B+

Pineapple Express — C+

Prom Night — D

The Ruins — C+

Saw V: BOMB

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 — B

Tropic Thunder — B

W. — C-

Wall-E — A

Wanted — B+

X-Files: I Want to Believe — B-

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