New Directors/New Films: Part Four
At their inquiring, scrappy best, independent films place unlikely people in life-altering conflicts, and let the chips fall. It probably wasn't easy for the curators at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art to choose the Opening Night film (March 26 at MoMA) out of 26 international features. But then this is the 37th year they've done it, supported now by HBO Films. Five of the most memorable films are themed around water--the female teen coming-of-age "Water Lilies" from France, the satirically interlocked lives of "Jellyfish" from Israel, the melancholy aftermath of a Tsunami in "Wonderful Town" from Thailand, the glorious epiphany of a vacationer on a remote island in "Megane" from Japan, and the bravery of an unshakable New Orleans couple living through Katrina in the U.S. documentary, "Trouble The Water." All of these five, especially "Water Lilies" which demonstrates how completely different 15-year-old girls bond in striking ways, are frontrunners.
"Frozen River," the curators' choice, produced by a mostly female company headed by Columbia U graduate Courtney Hunt writing and directing her first feature, continues to surround its characters with water Here it's the frozen St. Lawrence River, and the two women crisscrossing it in a Dodge Spirit are hauling a heavy load in their trunk--illegal Chinese and Pakistani immigrants moving from Canada into the U.S. One smuggler is a young mother from a Mohawk Indian Reservation. The other is an older abandoned mom living in a shabby trailer and trying to earn enough to upgrade herself and her kids into a Double-Wide. This is not your typical multiplex movie plot.
Don't be put off by the breathless comment of Quentin Tarantino (a juror at Sundance where "Frozen River" won Best Drama) that the picture "put my head in a vise and twisted the vise until the last frame." Miss Hunt's film is anything but grindhouse fare and the St. Lawrence River ice never breaks under the Dodge wheels. But "Frozen River" builds a slow, ominous and dangerous wave of tension. It's a delicate crime film that's really about two plain women surviving on the fringes of poverty. They start as adversaries but little by little are drawn into a kinship that defines the keen emotional support that women draw from and give to each other.
Melissa Leo, a splendid, weathered actor, and Misty Upham, an experienced Native American from Montana, are the women knit together by a common need to support their families. The producer, Heather Rae, is Cherokee Indian, and "Frozen River" is crafted with enormous professional assurance and authority. This is a film you give yourself to because you trust the instincts and sensibilities of the filmmakers --much as you did with Sarah Polley's "Away From Her" and even Mary Harron's "The Notorious Bettie Page." It's a process-in-the-dark you may have started nearly half a century ago with fledgling directors like Agnes Varda and Francois Truffaut, and it doesn't occur very often. With her first feature, Courtney Hunt has made a giant leap into very exalted company.