Film

Approaches to Depicting Poverty in 'Frozen River' and 'Leave No Trace'

Courtney Hunt's Frozen River and ten years later, Debra Granik's Leave No Trace, both seek to provide realistic depictions of poverty. Yet while the former plays like a heavy-handed message movie, the latter offers a master class in restraint.

Two films made by female directors offer a meaningful look at the different ways one can go about depicting poverty. The first, Frozen River (Courtney Hunt, 2008), tells the story of Ray (Melissa Leo), a mother of two who smuggles illegal immigrants across the US-Canada border in upstate New York. Debra Granik's new film, Leave No Trace (2018), follows Will (Ben Foster) and Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), a homeless father and daughter who illegally live in a public park outside Portland, Oregon.

These two movies have several things in common. In addition to their shared interest in portraying the economic, emotional, and social effects of poverty, both also benefit from remarkably perceptive acting. Leo richly deserved her Academy Award nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in Frozen River. In Leave No Trace, Foster buries himself in his role with a quiet zeal that'll leave you simultaneously awed and spooked. And McKenzie's mature, achingly moving performance will hopefully bring her the same kind of recognition that Granik's previous works (2004's Down to the Bone, 2010's Winter's Bone) once generated for Vera Farmiga and Jennifer Lawrence.

When it comes down to it, however, Frozen River and Leave No Trace approach their common theme from vastly different mindsets. Frozen River is a message movie that continually lingers on the facile observation that "these people you see are all poor." In part, this superficiality derives from Hunt's reliance on needlessly conspicuous close-ups. Directors frequently speak of the importance of keeping the audience "invested" in a story, but throughout Frozen River, Hunt often turns that prescription for emotional intimacy into a strikingly – but superfluously – physical one instead.

Here's one example of how this cinematography plays out in practice. Early in the film, we're presented with an extreme close-up of Ray's foot; without ever zooming outwards, the camera then slowly moves up her body and stops at her gloomy facial expression. It seems like the shot merely wishes to emphasize that Ray is unhappy and down on her luck. But the problem is that the film already indicates as much in the conventionally-framed scenes that precede and follow this shot. Images of a rundown trailer home and an abandoned merry-go-round testify to Ray's poverty – and in a sign of her distress, she also spends most of the early scenes arguing with other people. As exemplified by its redundant opening close-up, then, Hunt's camerawork catches our attention just so it can rehash things already illustrated elsewhere. This renders the film repetitive.

Cinematography aside, the other problem with Frozen River is its dialogue, which suffers from two major flaws. First, a fair amount of it is just exposition: instead of advancing the narrative, the script spends a lot of time either filling in backstory or explaining the ins and outs of the smuggling business. Second, almost every conversation we see explicitly references something financial, be it stolen cash, unpaid bills, paychecks, or the importance of not missing a day of work. Because of this and Hunt's aforementioned love of close-ups, Frozen River often carries the feel of a one-note sermon. Hunt's intentions are undeniably good – but she seems to believe that profundity arises from the constant portrayal of hardship alone, and the story is rather obvious as a result.

Melissa Leo as Ray Eddy in Frozen River (2008)

If Frozen River frequently proves heavy-handed, Leave No Trace conversely offers a master class in the art of restraint. To see what this means in practice, you can look at the way each film treats its protagonists' poverty. Frozen River doesn't exactly conceal Ray's penury. At the very beginning of the movie, we watch her haggle with a deliveryman over the payment she has to make for a new mobile home, and she also gets into an argument with her son over the pitifully low salary she receives at her part-time job. Right from the get-go, this continual, upfront talk of money (or lack thereof) thrusts the awfulness of Ray's economic condition to the forefront, thereby engendering the aforementioned "one-note sermon" effect.

Leave No Trace, however, doesn't initially dwell on the fact that Will and Tom are poor. We're certainly shown their meager lodgings – the tent they sleep in, the makeshift shelter they eat under – early on. But the purpose of the film's first part isn't to underscore the inadequacy of their living conditions. Instead, by presenting scenes in which Tom and Will happily play chess, pick wild mushrooms in lush green undergrowth, and hum "You Are My Sunshine" together, Granik channels Captain Fantastic (Ross, 2016) and its idealized depiction of a living off the land lifestyle. After Will and Tom are arrested some way into the story, a social worker explicitly calls them "homeless", even though they adamantly reject that description – and it's only then that the film finally seems to recognize that the two protagonists should be considered "poor".

Here, Granik's initial presentation of Tom and Will does two things. First, it suggests that "poor" is a descriptor that third parties impose on them: we may classify these characters as destitute, in other words, but they don't define themselves in terms of their economic condition. Second, by taking so long to acknowledge the two's poverty, Granik downplays their impoverishment, and her use of understatement ultimately allows her to depict their hardship without becoming as blatant about it as Frozen River. For both of these reasons, Leave No Trace's portrayal of poverty carries psychological insight and subtlety, two traits that Frozen River largely lacks.

Beyond their contrasting approaches to the depiction of poverty, the difference in quality between Frozen River and Leave No Trace also stems from their diverging narrative structures. On the one hand, Frozen River is built on a decidedly traditional framework. We learn at the film's start that Ray needs to get enough money to finance her purchase of a double wide mobile home, and throughout the story, everything she does in the smuggling business serves this end.

Thomasin McKenzie as Tom, Ben Foster as Will in Leave No Trace (2018)

This quest narrative structure succeeds in several ways. By eliminating extraneous subplots, it makes the movie easy to follow. Furthermore, in between Ray's smuggling runs – the parts of the film, in other words, that are "thrilling" in a conventional sense– the script also drops regular references to the "double wide". By reminding you of Ray's overarching goal, these references ensure that you always remain interested in the story, even when there are lulls in the action.

Despite these various strengths, however, Frozen River's narrative structure often feels too contrived for comfort. To take one example, it's only on her last smuggling run (i.e., the run that'll get her all the money she needs for the trailer) that Ray confronts meaningful legal problems. Furthermore, this run also happens to take place on the very night before she has to complete her payment on the trailer. As epitomized by this perfect confluence of circumstances, the film's conflicts can seem manufactured, deliberately engineered to be high-stakes.

In contrast, you could say that Leave No Trace is a film in which "nothing happens". The trailer portrays the movie as an inspirational drama about people who overcome poverty with the help of caring social workers. But in reality, Tom and Will spend most of the film either evading those workers or aimlessly wandering around the Pacific Northwest. During such wanderings, the two of them never seem to have any particular destination or objective in mind. They meet a lot of people along the way, but most of their acquaintances drop out of the storyline after a few minutes, such that these encounters don't carry long-term narrative consequences. Neither Tom nor Will changes much either: at the film's end, the Tom remains somewhat socially awkward but self-reliant, while Will continues to be stubbornly antisocial.

Leave No Trace tests your patience; indeed, several IMDb users have complained that it lacks "character development" and "a real story". Yet even if it's bound to irk some moviegoers, Leave No Trace's loose, anticlimactic, and meandering structure ably speaks to – and in some ways embodies – the purposelessness and muted frustration that Tom and Will feel in their day-to-day existence. Granik possesses a keen understanding of her characters' inner worlds, and throughout Leave No Trace, she's willing to do whatever is stylistically necessary to help her viewers relate to those inner worlds, even if that entails a more monotonous narrative. Ultimately, her structural approach helps imbue Leave No Trace with an empathy and poignant authenticity that you simply won't find in Frozen River.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
By the Book

Jack Halberstam's 'Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire' (excerpt)

Enjoy this excerpt of Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire, wherein Jack Halberstam offers an alternative history of sexuality by tracing the ways in which wildness has been associated with queerness and queer bodies throughout the 20th century.

Jack Halberstam
Music

Sotto Voce's 'Your Husband, the Governor' Is Beautifully Twisted DIY Indie Folk-rock

Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Ryan Gabos releases another odd, gorgeous home studio recording under the moniker Sotto Voce.

Music

Numün's 'voyage au soleil' Is a Trippy, Ambient Ride and Ambitious Debut

Eclectic instrumental trio numün combine a wealth of influences to create a vibe that's both spacey and earthy on voyage au soleil.

Music

L7's 'Smell the Magic' Is 30 and Packs a Feminist Punch

Abortion is under threat again, and there's a sex offender in the Oval Office. A fitting time, in short, to crank up the righteously angry vocals of feminist hard rock heavy hitters like L7.

Books

Can Queer Studies Rescue American Universities?

Matt Brim's Poor Queer Studies underscores the impact of poorer disciplines and institutions, which often do more to translate and apply transformative intellectual ideas in the world than do their ivory-tower counterparts.

Music

Jim White Offers a "Smart Ass Reply" (premiere)

Jesus and Alice Cooper are tighter than you think, but a young Jim White was taught to treat them as polar opposites. Then an eight-track saved his soul and maybe his life.

Music

Ed Harcourt Paints From 'Monochrome to Colour'

British musician Ed Harcourt's instrumental music is full of turbulent swells and swirls that somehow maintain a dignified beauty on Monochrome to Colour.

Music

West London's WheelUP Merges Broken Beat and Hip-Hop on "Stay For Long" (premiere)

West London producer WheelUP reached across the pond to Brint Story to bring some rapid-fire American hip-hop to his broken beat revival on "Stay For Long".

Music

PM Picks Playlist 4: Stellie, The Brooks, Maude La​tour

Today's playlist features the premiere of Stellie's "Colours", some top-class funk from the Brooks, Berne's eco-conscious electropop, clever indie-pop from Maude Latour, Jaguar Jonze rocking the mic, and Meresha's "alien pop".

Culture

Plattetopia: The Prefabrication of Utopia in East Berlin

With the fall of the Berlin Wall came the licence to take a wrecking ball to its nightmare of repression. But there began the unwritten violence of Die Wende, the peaceful revolution that hides the Oedipal violence of one order killing another.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Electrosoul's Flõstate Find "Home Ground" on Stunning Song (premiere)

Flõstate are an electrosoul duo comprised of producer MKSTN and singer-songwriter Avery Florence that create a mesmerizing downtempo number with "Home Ground".

Music

Orchestra Baobab Celebrate 50 Years with Vinyl of '​Specialist in All Styles'

As Orchestra Baobab turn 50, their comeback album Specialist in All Styles gets a vinyl reissue.

Music

Hot Chip Stay Up for 'Late Night Tales'

Hot Chip's contribution to the perennial compilation project Late Night Tales is a mixed bag, but its high points are consistent with the band's excellence.

Music

The Budos Band Call for Action on "The Wrangler" (premiere)

The Budos Band call on their fans for action with the powerful new track "The Wrangler" that falls somewhere between '60s spy thriller soundtrack and '70s Ethiojazz.

Music

Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" Ruminates on Our Second-Guesses (premiere)

A deep reflection on breaking up, Nashville indie rock/Americana outfit Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" is the most personal track from their new album, Home Team.

Books

For Don DeLillo, 'The Silence' Is Deafening

In Don DeLillo's latest novel, The Silence, it is much like our post-pandemic life -- everything changed but nothing happened. Are we listening?

Music

Brett Newski Plays Slacker Prankster on "What Are You Smoking?" (premiere)

Is social distancing something we've been doing, unwittingly, all along? Brett Newski pulls some pranks, raises some questions in "What Are You Smoking?".


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.