Thursday, April 23, 2009

“Life after ‘The L Word’” at Times Talks

Kim Severson, Ilene Chaiken, and Jennifer Beals

I admit that my unshakable fan status prompted me to bite on the Times offer to see Ilene Chaiken and “members of The L Word cast” talk about life after the series (Their lives? Our lives? Life in the world? Didn’t know). I dutifully paid my $30 and traveled into the city April 20th, a miserable rainy night, and stood in line with hundreds of other lesbians and other folks (I did see one or two men in the crowd), and poured into the very comfortable Times auditorium, and opened my program to see with pleasure that Jennifer Beals would be that “member of the cast.” And all my old and vaguely silly but extremely pleasurable L Word fascination was fanned back into high flame.

After watching the series for six years with at most six or eight friends at a time, and more frequently just with my partner, first on video tapes that started fading with over-viewing and eventually on DVR and then “on demand,” as all our technology changed over those years, it was a revelation to sit in a live audience of hundreds of fans. The demographics surprised me—my unscientific assessment suggests that a third of the audience were squarely middle-aged white women; a third, women in their 20s and 30s; around a quarter women of color of various ages; and the rest illegible to me. When many of these spectators lined up at the open mike during the last segment of the evening, it also became clear they’d come from various parts of the tri-state area and even around the country to hear Chaiken and Beals speak. (I learned only later that various on-line sources, including, had revealed earlier that Beals would be Chaiken’s dialogue companion. Here's a YouTube clip--taken against the wishes of the ushers and security, no doubt, of Chaiken and Beals' entrance at the event:

Kim Severson, a
Times food writer and out lesbian, moderated the evening with casual wit, channeling a fan’s desire for dirt with a journalist’s sense of the well put, productive question. Chaiken and Beals answered graciously and seemed entirely forthcoming, especially Beals, whose obvious intelligence, fair-mindedness, and generosity lent the evening a great deal of dignity. Beals’ dedication to the larger project of the show was palpable in each of her remarks, and her overtly articulated feminist politics a real pleasure to hear. She described how much her work on the show changed her awareness of gender and sexuality issues in American (and Canadian, since the show was shot in Vancouver) culture, and the new-found confidence working on the series has brought to her own work as an actor on film sets she said are “usually monolithic, patriarchal structures.” She now feels comfortable challenging film and television directors and producers on casual (or explicit) sexism, refusing demeaning dialogue and character set ups.

Beals also related that her connection to her body was strengthened by her
L Word work. She told a story about a recent film shoot for The Book of Eli, a movie she just wrapped with Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman, written and directed by the Hughes brothers (whom she noted with pleasure were terrific to work with because they’re biracial and were raised by a lesbian). The director of photography on the shoot explained apologetically that a shot that started at her feet and moved up her body wouldn’t “linger”; she reassured him that she’d just spent six years on The L Word, and wasn’t at all worried about how he’d film her body. Hearing her pride and pleasure in her own sexuality, and the obvious feminism through which she sees her work, was striking throughout the evening.

Apparently, the rumored spin-off starring Leisha Hailey (to be called
The Farm) was put on indefinite hold, but Chaiken is pursuing plans for an L Word film. The Beals and Chaiken also have a new project they’re working on together that, they protested, is still germinating and too soon to reveal. But the pleasure they take in their own professional partnership was palpable. They told stories they’ve rehearsed many times elsewhere about how they started working together. Beals was the first person cast on the show; at the time, she was contemplating an offer to play a prostitute, and said she happily chose to play a lesbian instead.

Given the choice to play Bette or Tina, she choose Bette, and asked that Chaiken write her character as biracial, since in addition to the progressive work she knew the show would do for representations of lesbians, she said she also wanted to see her own identity on screen. Beals said she also loved Rose Troche, one of the show’s first directors, when they met. Since most of the episodes were directed by artists who, like Troche, were associated with independent film, Beals said shooting each episode was like doing a “little movie.”

Chaiken admitted that the most autobiographical characters on the show were Bette and Jenny (until, that is, Jenny “went crazy,” in Chaiken’s description). Bette connected to Chaiken’s life as a high powered professional woman trying to balance a relationship with someone slightly less socially visible, and the complications of being a woman in the arts and media. Chaiken didn’t say much about how Jenny reflected her own life, but one can surmise. She said that the two characters channeled “a lot of my issues” until they “became themselves.”

Severson asked how Chaiken secured so many terrific, high-profile female guest artists for the show. Chaiken explained that many women were taken enough with the series that they had their agents call to express their interest. Although she insists she didn’t write for any particular actors, she was pleased with the pool of people available from whom to cast. She and Beals agreed there are so few parts for women that are “interesting and different and not in the service of a man’s story,” that especially women actors into their 30s and beyond were eager to join the cast. Beals emphasized how different it was to perform a character whose life doesn’t revolve around a man.

Severson referred to the controversy that surrounded the show since its premiere, with some spectators complaining that the characters (and the actors who played them) were too beautiful, too thin, or too unrealistic. Chaiken responded that if no one were inflamed about the series, it wouldn’t have lasted for six years. She admitted that she got attacked because Jenny was Jewish, even though, Chaiken said, “I happen to be Jewish, too.” Beals seemed more distressed by some of the harsh, on-line responses to the twists and turns in Bette’s portrayal, and decided she needed to steer clear of fan site discussion boards.

Severson joked about the peculiar plot twists of the final season (referring casually to “the guy with the beard,” who killed Jenny, and the various other “what’s up with that?” moments of the season), and Beals quipped that Chaiken “went over to the dark side” for the show’s last episodes. Chaiken protested that the show reflected “life” and couldn’t always be sunny; likewise, when Severson, to the glee of much of the audience, accused her of “killing” Dana, Chaiken defended herself by saying that she thought it was a true, important depiction of lesbians with cancer.

Chaiken and Beals stressed throughout the evening that the show’s goal was to tell stories that hadn’t been told before. Beals, in particular, underlined that her work on the show always had a political quotient, while Chaiken side-stepped the politics, demurring that you can’t begin with the intent to make a political point and wind up with “good art.” I was more impressed by Beals’ attention to what it meant to American culture for a series about lesbians to persist for six good years.

She said as she was doing press, she remembered that the “personal is political,” using good old fashioned feminist language to mark the intersection of life and ideology. She said she was excited about the possibility of helping a “young girl in the middle of nowhere find herself represented,” and about “giving someone safety and the room to be authentic. Everyone needs to be heard,” she said.

Questions from the audience were sometimes sweet and moving, and sometimes astute. One middle-aged African American woman responded to Beals’ remark about the isolated young would-be lesbian, saying that even those of us who live and work in places like New York are empowered by seeing representations of ourselves on screen. The woman related how her co-workers, to whom she was already out, seemed to have a new appreciation for her life and her lesbian family, and that the show gave her an opportunity for a “second coming out” that obviously filled her with surprised pride.

A surprising number of straight women took the microphone to attest to how
The L Word affected their own lives, prompting the audience to murmur with a rather affronted impatience. But Chaiken and Beals responded magnanimously, especially Beals, who took each question seriously, looked directly at the speaker, and answered precisely and carefully. Beals has the same gravitas she brought to Bette; I could feel the audience responding with a great deal of respect (and no small amount of pleasure and desire. She was clearly the icon of the moment).

Chaiken and Beals struck a mutually wistful tone through much of the evening, considering the show’s six year life-span and its recent end. Beals said she’s in frequent touch with Kate Moennig, who played Shane; she texted her recently to ask what she wouldn’t give for one more scene at the Planet, chatting over a cup of coffee. The nostalgia and longing was sweet, and reminded me that those scenes in the restaurant always seemed among the most authentic, full of real connections among the actors and the characters. Beals recalled how much she learned from doing the show. “My eyes were also opened,” she said. “I learned how connected we all are. All women are connected. Homophobia is a form of misogyny.”

Chaiken said she thought
The L Word happened at a moment of “receptivity for gay characters on tv,” when “the culture was ready.” Now, she believes that if she were to pitch the series, producers would tell her that lesbians have “been done.” The pair said they thought they’d be “passing a baton,” but instead, they said, “there’s nothing” on television that will continue to till the ground The L Word broke.

At the end of the evening, Beals made a point of thanking the fans for their dedicated support of the show. She said she’s realized, by attending various fundraisers, that there’s a market for the photographs she took on set during the series (Beals has a solid reputation as a photographer, as well as an actor). She’s thinking of making an
L Word photo book, for which she’d give the royalties to various charities.

I have to say I was proud to be among those fans that night, proud of Chaiken and Beals and Severson and how smart they all were, how feminist, how progressive, how positive and articulate about the need for the kind of work
The L Word accomplished in the cultural imagination. A couple days later, I watched a clip online of Laurel Holloman accepting an award for “sexiest scene on television” at the Bravo A-List Awards show. She paraded her lovely self up to the mike, looking sexy and gorgeous, took hold of the vaguely phallic globe that served as the trophy, and joked, “This looks a prop from my show.” She went on to remark that she was accepting the award for a scene in which she “sat on Jennifer’s face.” She applauded how remarkable it is (“How cool is that?”) that such a scene could be televised, let alone awarded, and said, “I don’t know what’s with this Prop 8 business,” before she left the stage.

Maybe it’s politics lite, but it’s politics, just the same.
The L Word girls are out there getting it said, getting it done, chipping away at those “patriarchal structures” and homophobia and misogyny, not just in the film and television industries, but in many of our lives.

How cool is that?

The Feminist Spectator

Thursday, April 16, 2009

West Side Story

Various images from West Side Story, courtesy
Clockwise from upper left: The Jets dance; Maria and Tony meet;
Maria feels pretty (singing in Spanish); the girls like to be in America

Late in his distinguished career, Arthur Laurents is making a new name for himself rethinking classic American musicals for which he was an original, key collaborator. After the spectacular success of his recently directed remount of Gypsy, with Patti Lupone, for which he wrote the 1959 book, Laurent has again transformed his writer’s eye into a director’s perspective on West Side Story, for which he wrote the book in 1957.

If his approach with Gypsy was to find its authenticity by sharpening the edges of the three leading characters, his concept for West Side Story is to more closely reflect the lives of the Puerto Rican gang members in 19 50s New York who anchor one half of the story’s revision of Romeo and Juliet. I admire Laurents’ decision to hire Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights) to translate some of the show’s dialogue and two of its key songs into Spanish. I went to see the show (at the Palace Theatre, 4/4/09) hoping that the choice to honor its characters’ ethnicity might bring the musical new poignancy. But somehow, Laurents’ connection with the material seems less organic than gimmicky.

The Spanish language addition is more than a publicity stunt. The difference between the Sharks and the Jets becomes palpable and meaningful, and the very different textures of their adjacent lives in Manhattan starker, when the Sharks curse the Jets in Spanish and speak to one another in their own language. The fact that some portion of the Broadway audience will be marginalized from their dialogue matters, too, to the extent that it’s worthwhile to put a mainstream American audience in the position that non-English speaking immigrants in the States feel every day. The simple difference of language could productively underline the condition of being “othered” in an English-dominated, predominantly white culture.

But many of Laurent’s other choices work against the realism the Spanish dialogue and songs might provide. The stunning visual design woos the eye with gorgeous, romantic lighting, especially for “There’s a Place for Us,” a number choreographed as a utopian fantasy for Maria and Tony, in which the considerably brightened stage radiates with what feels like vibrant sunlight and vital warmth. Otherwise, the darkened set, too, seems to take place in something of a “nowhere.”

Although the design is vaguely reminiscent of Jo Mielziner’s concept for Death of a Salesman, with abstracted New York apartments sketched as wings on the side of the stage, the décor does little to evoke what it feels like to be Puerto Rican (or, for that matter, white) and poor and young in Manhattan in the 50s. There’s something very clean about this production, even though the young male actors wear conspicuously applied dirt on their faces and arms to give them a rough and tough appeal. Later, after the tragic rumble by the highway, their wounds, too, seem pasted on. They resemble the blood and gore of a B horror film, instead of the hard earned, knuckle-bruising knocks of a senseless fight.

The production, in fact, is peculiarly unconvincing, despite its obvious heart. A lot of love and attention has gone into this revival, but the only place the lavish affection pays off is in the dance numbers. Joey McKneely’s ’s reproductions of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography thrillingly recalls what it might have been like to see those moves for the first time, when the idea of dancing gang members was novel and exciting. In the Prologue and the opening “Jet Song” number, the boys lightly leap into the air, rising and falling with a kind of strenuous effortlessness. The dance at the gym, the horrible rumble, even the Jets’ abuse of Anita in Doc’s drug store, all are accomplished with an attention to detail that brings the choreographic archive alive.

The production’s more inferior aspects stem from poor casting choices. If Laurents aimed for verisimilitude with his choice to texture the production with Spanish, casting Josefina Scaglione, a lily-white Argentinean opera singer, to play Maria compromises what might otherwise be seen as a racially progressive gesture. Most of the Sharks and their women at least look Latino, with olive-color skin and shiny dark hair. But Maria appears practically corn fed; she and Matt Cavenaugh, who plays Tony, could be brother and sister.

For the star-crossed lovers to find and fall for each other, as a result, doesn’t seem taboo-breaking as much as it does pre-ordained. That Maria’s youth and virginity should be signified by her very white skin compromises the importance of the lovers’ difference from one another, and seems even more glaring in a production that wants to emphasize ethnicity. If Laurents intended to address the politics of skin color in minoritized cultures, his casting choice for Maria might have been interesting.

But nothing in the production suggests that this was his intent. In fact, Maria is mocked for her idealism and her naïveté by actors whose Latino/a ethnicity is generally more visible on stage, which gives those scenes an odd air of intra-race jealousy, instead of the concern and disapprobation of a community truly fearful for what might happen if miscegenation is condoned.

That Scaglione isn’t a very strong actor doesn’t help her make a convincing case for empathy. She plays Maria as more sophisticated than her years, her attraction to Tony less world-changing than the standard erotic charge of a woman who knows exactly what she wants. Scaglione and Cavenaugh are a pleasing couple, but they don’t generate the chemistry that leaves an audience devastated by their inevitable separation through death.

In fact, rather than making any of the by now mythic story fresh and surprising, this production takes the audience and the cast through our paces, bringing us to the sorry end through a well-traveled route. None of the actors’ interpretations reveal new angles on their characters’ situations. Even though thinking about race and class—especially during the nascent Obama administration—has changed considerably in the U.S. since the original production opened on Broadway, this revival captures none of that new energy or insight. The performance feels not so much like a slavishly faithful, museum-quality revival, but more like a remounting under glass, distanced and strangely clinical.

The cast’s youth might contribute to this remove. While many of the Sharks and Jets are terrific dancers who convey their slightly drawn characters with convincing body tics and emblematic physical signatures, and the principals have beautiful, resonant singing voices, no one in the cast stands out for their acting. While their talents energize the musical numbers that provide the revival’s most enthralling moments, the cast’s acting deficits make the book’s more emotional moments disappointing. No one seems to discover anything in the moment; they present their interactions—romantic or hostile—as a done deal, without showing us what prompts them to act.

I waited throughout the production to be genuinely moved, but felt instead continually disappointed. Only “There’s a Place for Us” brought welcome goose-bumps to my arms and a lump to my throat, and that was because a young red-headed boy of perhaps 10 or 12, who’d lurked in the back of some of the gang fight scenes with Anybodys, was trotted out to sing the first few phrases a cappella, while Tony and Maria fled offstage to change their costumes. Something about the musical change and the transformation of the production’s physical gestalt for that number approached the heart wrenching emotion I’d expected from the whole evening. (On the other hand, the use of the boy’s pristine soprano reminded me a bit too much of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” in Cabaret, for which recent productions have used the same eyes-of-the-innocents gesture to manipulate audience response.)

Even the production’s last scene, in which Tony roams the abandoned streets, calling for Chino to slaughter him as Tony believes Chino has killed Maria, seems manufactured, offering canned, pat feelings rather than real emotion. When poor Anybodys—in a haircut that makes her look like Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena in the film Boys Don’t Cry—approaches Tony to try to call him back to his senses, he snarls, “You’re a girl. Act like one.” Too bad that a production that tries—even if it fails—to be racially complex has to end, as usual (and as the original book dictates), by damning the one character in the musical performing herself through more complex gender identifications.

Hearing the orchestra play the soaring score and listening to those wonderful lyrics, I was only sorry that the singers conveyed the music’s emotion with more technique than heart. Laurents and his cast missed an opportunity to say something much more, to help us think through racial difference in new ways in a historical moment in which day to day politics already lead the way. In this West Side Story, the theatre is left lagging behind.

The Feminist Spectator

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Chasing Manet

Jane Alexander (l) and Lynn Cohen in Chasing Manet

Tina Howe’s new play, at Primary Stages (which I saw just before it opened on 4/4/09), continues her career-long exploration of the foibles of blue-blood families and the women they oppress. This version of the story regards a patrician woman toward the end of a distinguished life, who finds herself—thanks to her feckless son—ripped summarily from a life spent as a painter in Boston and stashed in a nursing home in the Bronx.

Jane Alexander plays Catherine Sargent (fictionalized cousin to the great American painter John Singer Sargent), wearing a head full of long, flowing white hair and radiating the wasted vitality of someone stored to wait for her death much too early. Even curled up in a bitter fetal position at the beginning of many scenes, Alexander retains the play’s focus. Her intelligence and charisma as Catherine helps push a play that might have been a predictable trifle into more compelling evening.

Alexander’s terrific partner in this transformation is Lynn Cohen, who finds the humanity, warmth, and comedy in a character suffering the beginnings of Alzheimer’s disease. Cohen plays Rennie Waltzer, who becomes Catherine’s new roommate at the nursing home, bringing with her a large and loud family of Long Island Jews (played by Julie Halston, David Margulies, among others).

Director Michael Wilson brings the actors performing as the Jewish family close to stereotype—that fine line between laughing at and laughing with is walked here—but manages to make them familiar but particular, with individual stories that keep them from falling squarely into type.

Rennie’s husband Herschel died several years before, sending her quickly into an emotional and mental spiral down toward losing her mind. She thinks that Herschel is still alive, calling out to him to observe the things that amuse her—frequently—in her new life. Rennie thinks she’s living in a four-star hotel, much to Catherine’s dismay.

Catherine’s plaint is that she’s trapped in a place she finds far beneath her; her burden is that she’s now blind, and truly can’t care for herself. Her son, Royal (Jack Gilpin, in an appropriately sedate turn as the ineffectual middle-aged man), is a Yeats professor at Columbia who moves her to New York thinking he’ll participate in her care and see her often. But his stressful academic life limits his availability, and he winds up leaving her warehoused, isolated, and lonely.

Catherine’s acidic fury at being left to die among strangers she openly finds inferior requires Alexander to convey a complicated set of emotions. On one hand, her anger makes her caustic and her arrogance can be tiring. On the other hand, the audience wants to empathize with a woman who’s clearly still smart and healthy. Catherine is a blind painter, who has to conjure her favorite images—especially Manet’s Déjeuner sur L’Herbe—from an old and deep mental archive. The injustice of watching someone who loves light and color no longer be able to see is enough to draw spectators to the character.

That blindness is Catherine’s only challenge raises disability politics that Howe doesn’t seem to consider. Why couldn’t Royal have found help for her at her own home in Boston? Why couldn’t Catherine learn to get around with a cane or a guide dog? But Chasing Manet is a comedy, which apparently lets Howe off the hook for not thinking very deeply about the logistics of her central metaphor.

The nursing home is indeed demeaning, as Catherine claims when she’s invited to toss around a beach ball that a well-meaning physical therapist suggests to his charges is molten lava. Catherine simply refuses to play, sitting off to the side wearing her own sour whimsy—she’s splattered a pair of spectacles with red paint and crashes into the physical therapy scene calling herself Oedipus. When no one rises to her joke—most of the others are wheelchair bound, while Catherine is mobile and strong—she sits outside the circle, sulking.

The play clarifies that the indignities of aging aren’t suffered only by the rich and by those still for the most part mentally and physically intact. The beach ball scene, and other interactions between the staff and the residents, shows how the elderly are infantilized, even by personnel as well meant as those Howe creates here. Played with sensitivity and humor by Vanessa Aspillaga and Rob Riley—the only two actors of color in the cast—the nursing home staffers are entirely empathetic, seeing the people with whom they work as people to respect and engage. But even for them, it’s clearly difficult to keep from speaking down to people who are, in fact, losing control of their bodies and their minds.

Sometimes the play wants us to identify with Catherine’s son and Rennie’s daughter, who’ve enrolled their respective parents in this circumscribed life because there seemed no other choice. Howe writes both characters scenes in which they express their fear at losing their parent, and both are given ample reasons for their decision about where to let their mother end her life. In other scenes, Howe wants us to feel the indignities of aging and losing control of your own agency.

Aside from Cohen and Alexander, the nursing home residents are played quite over the top by the other actors (all of whom rotate through multiple roles as family members and friends, nursing staff and residents). They select physical and emotional mannerisms—based on the excesses of Howe’s text in these scenes—that push their characters into caricatures. One is a sex-obsessed elderly gentleman who can’t keep his hands out of his pants. Another is paranoid and fearful; another dotty and weird, with uncontrolled facial tics (Halston, overacting as an old woman here, while she’s more reserved and effective as Rennie’s daughter, Rita). That these scenes push into the absurd and grotesque undercuts the critique Howe wants to launch of how older people are treated by their families.

Assisted by topnotch actors like Alexander and Cohen, Catherine and Rennie retain the story’s focus. Rennie’s exuberant love of life begins to thaw Catherine’s icy Brahmin reserve. And once Catherine realizes that Rennie, who at least can see, could be a partner in her plan to escape from the prison of assisted living, the two strike up an unlikely friendship that gives Rennie back her dignity and Catherine back her heart.

As farfetched as Chasing Manet’s resolution might really be, it’s a pleasure to see two strong older female characters get what they want and deserve (see Howe’s conversation with Jane Alexander at That they enable one another, and wrest back control of their lives, immersing themselves in pleasures and choices their children prematurely decided they should lose, lets Chasing Manet sound a triumphal, hopeful note. Watching Alexander and Cohen play off of one another in elegantly timed, warm repartee reminded me of Angela Lansbury and Marian Seldes in Terrence McNally’s Deuce a few seasons back. That two-hander gave the older actors more complex live stories but less to do, as they sat watching a tennis match and reminiscing about their lives of competition with one another and the tour. In Chasing Manet, women who should by rights be less mobile are ironically empowered to travel—literally and figuratively. Perhaps that difference comes from Howe’s career-long attention to women’s plight, and her determination that neither age nor gender should hold a good woman back.

The Feminist Spectator

Friday, April 03, 2009

Frozen River

Misty Upham, left, and Melissa Leo, in Frozen River

Courtney Hunt’s film Frozen River is a quietly moving examination of lives blinkered by poverty in a small town in upstate New York, close to the Canadian border. As the local economy withers away, residents of the town and those on the nearby Mohawk reservation turn to illegally smuggling immigrants into the country as a way to turn a quick buck.

Melissa Leo plays Ray Eddy, a woman whose husband has run off with the balloon payment due on the double-wide trailer they’ve been saving to buy. The film starts with Ray sitting in the passenger seat of her car, wearing a worn, pink chenille bathrobe. The car is parked outside her rusty single-wide mobile home, which sits precariously, isolated on an abandoned, grassless lot in the middle of the nowhere where the surrounding town is already dying.

The camera moves in for an extreme close-up of Ray’s face, scrutinizing every pore and inch of her rough red skin, worn from smoke and worry. Unexpected tears suddenly spill out of her eyes, while she blows smoke from her mouth. Her tears flow without a drop of self-pity; they release something that lets her pull herself together and go back into the house to attend to her two sons. T.J., the teenaged boy (Charlie McDermott), watches over his five-year-old brother; he can’t bear to see him suffer the disappointments T.J. already knows are in store. The younger boy lives happily ignorant of their poverty, as both Ray and T.J. struggle to keep his world intact.

At the film’s start, Ray’s husband has just left, and not for the first time. While the boys are in school, she goes to look for him at the Bingo parlor on the nearby Mohawk reservation, where wary locals refuse to help her. In the parking lot, Ray sees Lila, a young Native woman, driving her husband’s car. When Ray confronts her, Lila says she found it with the keys in it at the bus station, and later mentions she saw the car’s owner getting on a southbound bus. Ray knows her husband is headed to Atlantic City; she also knows the money is irretrievably gone.

Ray’s initial interactions with Lila play out in icy recriminations, as neither woman has much sympathy for the other. Their equally desperate straits make them natural competitors, but they’re both smart enough to realize they’d be better off as collaborators. The car holds value for Lila, because she needs a vehicle to participate in a smuggling ring that shepherds illegal immigrants across the St. Lawrence River, frozen solid in the bitter winter. Once they see that they can help one another, they strike up a situational relationship of convenience. How it changes propels the film into surprising emotional territory.

Lila is implacably calm about the smuggling operation into which she initiates Ray. Lila knows everything: how much it costs to be smuggled into the States; how long the immigrants have to work until they pay off their debt to the people who bring them in; how much time you have to serve if you get caught running an illegal; and how much they make for each smuggling run. But Lila needs a car and she also needs someone who can see. Her ill-fitted glasses are too uncomfortable to wear. But she worries that the smugglers will cheat her, and makes sure that Ray counts their money at the beginning and end of every trip.

Lila lives in circumstances even more humble than Ray’s; her trailer is a one-room camper, abandoned in deep, snow covered woods. An unexplained crime has destroyed Lila’s reputation on the reservation. Something happened that resulted in her young husband’s death, which prompts the tribal council to collude with Lila’s mother-in-law to take away Lila’s one-year-old child. Lila watches the baby, hiding in the bushes outside her mother-in-law’s house, leaving money for them in potato chip canisters she quietly props by their door.

Because Ray has the car and Lila has the knowledge, the two women make a business deal. They drive together across the frozen river to still another ramshackle mobile home, rolling across the ice to where the smuggler keeps illegal immigrants waiting to be ferried into the U.S. Ray and Lila load two of these people into their trunk at a time and drive back on the ice to the unwatched border. When they get off the river, they drive through a portion of the route watched by a state trooper. The tensest moment of the trip is when they look to see if he follows. Lila tells Ray bitterly on their first trip, “He won’t stop you, you’re white.”

Throughout the film, Ray forces herself into situations in which she’s singular—the only white woman, the only working mother, the only woman who’s not a stripper or an alien in the Canadian club they visit in the film’s climactic scene to collect their last load of illegal immigrants. She handles herself with incredible resolve and aplomb, once she decides to participate. She and Lila clear $600 for each trip they make; the money is generous and easy for someone who works long hours, standing on her feet for a minimum wage that amounts to much less.

Unsavory men run the smuggling operation. One is a hirsute, brutal Canadian who owns the strip club; the other is the long-haired Native man in the trailer on the river, who takes one look into Ray’s car and tells Lila, “I don’t like to deal with white women.” But Ray needs the money and can’t afford to bristle at the racism she suffers. After all, Ray is racist, too.

Hunt’s film carefully calibrates the dual oppressions of being poor and white or Native American in a country in which there are fewer and fewer social service nets. Without her husband, Ray needs to earn twice as much. But she works as a clerk at the local Dollar Value store, where her manager is an unctuous much younger white man who refuses to put her on the schedule fulltime after she’s worked dependably for two years. But he lets another, younger, prettier female employee come in late and keep much more lax work habits. Ageism also works against Ray and her struggle to feed her kids.

T.J. complains about eating popcorn and drinking Tang for breakfast and dinner. Ray searches for coins in the couch pillows, meting out the few quarters and dimes she can scrape together so that the boys can buy themselves lunches at school. T.J. wants to leave high school and get a job, but Ray insists he continue his education. She’s steely in her resolve that he’ll do better, that he’ll somehow transcend the circumstances in which she’s raising him.

Ray hasn’t yet acquiesced to her situation. Every act is motivated by her dream of buying the double-wide trailer with three bedrooms, a Jacuzzi in the master, and wall-to-wall carpeting. At the film’s start, the new house is being delivered on a flatbed truck that pulls right up to the field where the old one sits, desolate. But since her husband has absconded with the cash, Ray doesn’t have the final payment. The angry trailer salesman drives the truck off, telling her he won’t come out again.

Ray wants that home. The film respects that the double-wide is the apogee of the better life toward which she can stride. Frozen River isn’t a fairy tale. But its clear-eyed understanding of Ray and Lila’s plight insures that we don’t pity either character. Their part of upstate New York is forsaken and barren, but it has a brutal, chilled beauty that makes the landscape look like a Catherine Opie painting of strangely symmetrical, subtly colorful ice-fishing huts on a frozen lake.

Ray isn’t asking for hand-outs; she isn’t even really blaming her husband. She understands he’s sick: “He has an addiction,” she tells her son with clenched teeth. They settle in at the end of their evenings to have important conversations as they look beyond one another, staring at the television while they talk about how they’re going to get through the next day.

The son substitutes for his father, even though he, too, is still a child. T.J. makes crank calls to swindle unsuspecting elderly people out of $29 and their credit card numbers, telling them they’ve been left an inheritance for which he needs their information to process the small fee before he releases their windfalls. His own anxious ploy for cash preys on the desperation of the people he reaches, extending the cycle of poverty and despair and determination to survive by your wits.

T.J. isn’t scamming for drug money or alcohol, or anything about which a young boy with slightly more means might scheme. He’s trying to pitch in, since Ray won’t let him pull his weight and work for the few dollars of extra cash that might mean real food on their plates. Ray has rented a flat-screen television from a place called “Rent to Buy.” When the store calls to say if she doesn’t make her payment, they’re coming to take it away, T.J. frantically plots to find the money, so that his little brother won’t be left without his meager entertainment. These quotidian crises propel this drama, and yet they generate surprisingly ominous suspense.

Hunt produces a narrative that could be told much more conventionally. For instance, when a state trooper comes to their trailer at the film’s end, looking for T.J., a different sort of film-maker could succumb to cliché and have him haul the boy to jail. In Frozen River, the officer brings along the elderly woman T.J. swindled, asking only that the boy apologize face to face for what he did and that he not do it again. The law here isn’t the enemy—the troopers (including Michael O’Keefe, nicely underplaying as the officer whose interactions with Ray over the course of the story determine her fate) find themselves employed among people whose actions are motivated by the extremity of their poverty, not by evil.

Likewise, Ray’s future comes as no surprise, but how it’s handled is humane and forgiving. For someone managing such a hard-scrabble life, she finds reserves of compassion and understanding that model a hopeful extension of conventional kinship systems across race, ethnicity, and class. On the other hand, Ray isn’t portrayed a saint. She deflects any empathy she might receive from the other characters as well as from spectators. On one of their smuggling trips, Ray carries a Pakistani couple in her trunk, a man and a woman who have a duffle bag they insist Ray and Lila carry inside the car. Ray doesn’t know what “Paki” means when Lila refers to their passengers, or where Pakistan is when Lila explains.

The mysterious package makes Ray uneasy, and she decides to leave it on the icy river halfway through the trip. When they arrive at the roadside motel where the illegal immigrants are passed along to the next operative in the seedy smuggling ring, delivered into a life of servitude working for the people who bring them over, the Pakistani couple is distraught about the abandoned bag. For good reasons, Ray and Lila return to the river in the glacial cold of a very dark night to retrieve it.

Ray makes mistakes; she’s not worldly; she’s racist; she has a gun and she’s more than willing to use it. But her innate intelligence and her sharp survival skills make her a compelling, moving study in economic determination. Leo’s performance—for which she received a richly deserved Academy Award nomination—is unsparing and vulnerable. She brings a transparency to her performance that lets you see Ray deliberately make each of her impossible decisions, and track her commitment to seeing them through.

Leo registers the injustices she confronts with bitter knowledge, but never with self-pity. There’s no wallowing in her performance as Ray, just a deep willingness to bring this woman dignity and finally, understanding. Each of the central performances is equally unsparing and natural. Misty Upham, as Lila, has the same blank affect as Elaine Miles, the Native American woman who played Marilyn on the television series Northern Exposure in the early 1990s. Lila is perhaps a bit of a stereotype, as the unemotional, inexpressive Native American who nonetheless observes and comments dryly but perceptively.

But the character’s back-story and her uneasy relationship to the Mohawk territory where she clearly lives as an outsider lets Lila exceed stock. Her determination to retrieve the baby that was stolen from her fuels her own trips back and forth across the border. One of her most painful scenes shows her holed up in her tiny, snow encrusted camper, startled awake when the container in which she’s been leaving money for her mother-in-law and her baby is thrown against her thin tin door with all her money still rolled up inside.

Frozen River details the kind of desperation that drives good people to do bad things. The movie is as suspenseful as a James Bond film, but the drama here is all about the struggle to survive and the most human of emotions. When a connection is finally made, no one lives happily every after, but they do manage to pool their wits and their wiles enough to survive. For these two disenfranchised women and three young boys, that’s admirable enough.

The Feminist Spectator