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Rental Unit: “Frozen River”

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As the cost of making a grainy, small-budget masterpiece keeps falling with new digital technology, the vogue for depicting suburbia as a bleak landscape of debt and bad haircuts is on the rise. It could be a coincidence, but by now it seems the pop-culture decree is that small hometowns across the United States are places where hopelessness runs free and the only spirit comes courtesy of Dodge, usually in a please-kill-me aqua color.

This is where we find the melancholy Ray (Melissa Leo, Academy Award-nominated for the role), whose husband has left her up to her ankles in snow with the double-wide and the kids at their place near the Canadian border. Sounds bad enough to most people who could see the picture when it came out in limited release in New York and Los Angeles, but things quickly get worse. Ray's husband has run off with the $3,000 saved to pay for the delivery of a new mobile home, the rent-to-own store is on the way to collect the television, and her boss at the dollar store tells her she's only part-time material even though she's been there two years.

Ray barely has a few bucks to her name and her ex's dingy Dodge when she meets Lilia (Misty Upham), a Native-American woman who tries to steal her car and pays her back by pushing her into an illegal-immigrant-smuggling scheme that pays big bucks. Winner of a grand prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, “Frozen River” shines during this middle passage, when it refuses to glamorize Ray as she drops the pretense of morality for the quick cash of ferrying illegals in the trunk of her car across the frozen St. Lawrence River. At first horrified to be breaking the law, soon she's barking orders at Chinese and Pakistani clients alike, and thrilled to be flush with dough until an accident shakes her back into the real world.

Director Courtney Hunt had trouble finding backing for “Frozen River,” but she's sure to have an easier time in her next outing after this film's Oscar attention. It has its desolation down, in the images and performances of its cast, but its point is as blank as the vistas. The movie seems to be saying that the outlands of society breed desperation and moral ambiguity, but can't convince us as to what's special about its version or even what we should feel about it. Hunt wants the emotions and plot she's creating to provide chills, but this time we're just left cool. (R) HHHI I S

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