This was a movie which opened in August of last year to some solid reviews, especially for the lead performance by Melissa Leo, an actress mostly known for TV work but who ended up getting an Oscar nomination and just today winning the Spirit Award for her role here. I was kind of interested, but August was a very very busy month and the movie wasn't at the top of my to-do list. By the time I finally had time to actually see it, the movie was pretty much gone. I was glad then that the movie did pick up 2 Oscar noms for screenplay and best actress, which led to a select re-release of the film, which gave me a second chance to see it.
Since I'm on a theatre history kick, some background on the Quad Cinema, which opened way back in 1972 and was the first 4-screen theatre in NYC. 4 very small screens, 100-150 seats, with aisle down the center and no more than half a dozen seats to either side, not all that well raked, and not a lot of leg room. For some reason I've always been more tolerant of this here than of the similarly unpleasant Lincoln Plaza Cinema, which I vowed never to go to again after a point and have pretty much kept to unless dragged along with family. But the Quad I'll go to if I must. I first went there in the winter of 1981/82 on a snowy day. My mom and I went into NYC together, split up and went our separate ways, me to the Quad to see Prince of the City, and then I trudged back up to meet my mom at the Port Authority Bus Terminal for the return trip home. My hands got very badly cracked that winter and were kind of at their worst then, and since I've used the occasional spritz of hand lotion during the dry winter months so it doesn't happen again. In its heyday, the Quad was one of the few arthouse screens in Greenwich Village and in spite of its limitations could draw the occasional big crowd. I remember waiting in line outside in 1986 to see the movie Housekeeping, and while I waited I read the Analog serialization of Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold. Not too long thereafter the Angelika opened providing six somewhat more luxurious art cinemas downtown and the non-profit Film Forum relocated and started to compete for new releases. While the Angelika also has aisles down the center and bad leg room, the theatres have more ceiling height and thus larger screens and are on balance much nicer places to see a movie. But the Quad has survived. It doesn't get the major first-run movies so much any more, but it does a steady enough business with gay interest films or more obscure but still somewhat of interest indie and foreign films as well as the occasional move-over of a mainstream or arthouse movie that's no longer welcome at the Regal Union Square or the Angelika. I don't know if the Quad will last forever, but as of this writing it's one of the eldest surviving theatres in NY. The Ziegfeld is older, the original 2 screens at the 64th & Second (aka Gemini), Cinema 2 at the original Cinema 1/2 complex (Cinema 1 was divided so doesn't count), the Paris, the AMC Loews 72nd St. (nee Loews Tower East) are the only movie theatres in Manhattan that I know from checking the weekend listings and Cinema Treasures that have been around as long or longer, maybe the Imaginasian/DW Griffith and the City Cinemas 86th St. except that in changing from twin to quad possible it's another Cinema 1 situation where the screens aren't as they were in 1972 even if the theatre's still there, and we're not counting Radio City. So of 10 screens that you might have gone to 36 years ago today in Manhattan, the Quad accounts for 4 of them.
Also of note about the Quad... if you remember those old drive-in things about going to the refreshment stands, there was a company called Pike Productions that chugged along for many years doing updated versions of them, and the Quad is one of the theatres that's pretty consistently shown one of them. Alas it seems from the web site that Pike itself is now a redirect for another company doing that sort of thing. Bummer! But if you want a nice "Feature Presentation" thing for your home theatre click away at that link.
So that's where I saw Frozen River. Melissa Leo is a mom with a 15-year-old and an elementary-school age boy and a gambling addict husband who's just run off taking the money that was intended to pay for a new double-wide prefab house to replace their old one in the cold snowy plains of upstate New York just across from Canada. Her attempts to run down her husband put her in contact with a young woman from the Mohawk reservation nearby who smuggles illegals in from Canada to the US, and out of desperation the mom decides to get involved with the trade. I'm vaguely annoyed that Courtney Hunt has garnered an Oscar nomination for her screenplay, because it's not particularly original or above the run of the mill amerindie in my eyes. The foreshadowing gets to be obvious, and it's another of those movies where you know the lead character really shouldn't try for that one last bank robbery/stakeout/kiss/whatever and that it probably won't end up well. But Melissa Leo's performance is a revelation. She inhabits her character absolutely, totally, and completely, and makes her every act of desperation into something utterly believable and logical and with no other choice but. Her fiercely honest performance helps to bulldoze over the limitations of the script in an above-and-beyond the call way. It helps that Charlie McDermott is also quite good as her older son and Misty Upham as the young Mohawk. McDermott seems to be channeling his inner Jesse Eisenberg from The Squid and the Whale, and that's a good thing. Upham shares a lot of screen time with Leo, and it's a bit unfair for both of them not to be nominated because they're equally good and equally able to give conviction to the script when the words on the page aren't actually there. Courtney Hunt also directed and deserves a lot of credit for getting such strong performances from her leads. Perhaps inevitably for an independently financed film, the depth of the cast isn't ideal, and the further you go from the lead the less compelling I found the performances to be. The state trooper who stops Leo's car rings false notes with every utterance,the other Mohawk roles tend toward cliche, etc. Hunt also tries too hard to demonstrate that yes, she really is filming the movie in upstate New York in the bitter cold, and I'm not sure she needed to.
But on balance, definitely worth renting, and it's good to see this little indie movie getting some Oscar love ahead of other movies with bigger names and bigger bankrolls behind them.