Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes,
and I will observe it to the end.
Give me understanding, that I may keep your law
and observe it with my whole heart.
When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.
Courtney Hunt’s somberly realistic film focuses upon the distraught lives of those whom our politi cians claim that they want to help, those left out of the American Dream. In upstate New York by the Canadian border Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) is left with two sons and unpaid bills when her husband runs off with their meager savings. When the agent drives up with the other half of their double-wide trailer, he refuses to leave it when Ray tells him that although she does not have the money, she will pay for it soon. Unless she comes up with the money by Christmas, he responds, she will lose the $1500 down payment. She also is in danger of losing the family’s large-screen TV set because of failure to keep up their payments, a sad setback in that it provides the two boys with an escape from their dreary plight.
5-year-old Ricky (James Reilly) keeps asking embarrassing questions about “When is Daddy coming home,” but 15-year-old T. J. (Charlie McDermott) knows the score all too well. In fact Ray has her hands full convincing T.J. that he needs to stay and finish school, rather than drop out and help the family by getting a job. His retort that he could make more money than she does stings because hers is a part-time job at the near-by Yankee One Dollar Store. Her plea to her boss that she be taken on full-time has fallen on deaf ears. Christmas is almost at hand, but Ray is so concerned with their lack of money that she is not even thinking of buying presents. T.J., loving his little brother in spite of being saddled with his care while their mother is away, is concerned that Ricky not wake up to disappointment on Christmas Day. He tries a telephone scam on an old lady living on the Mohawk Indian reservation to raise some money to buy Ricky the Hot Wheels set he covets.
Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham) lives in a tiny trailer on the Reservation and, when she is not smuggling illegal aliens across the frozen St. Lawrence Rive that forms the border, works part time at the Mohawk bingo casino. We know nothing about her at first, the filmmaker revealing bit by bit her situation, the process similar to an archaeologist’s slowly removing the dirt covering up a long buried mosaic in a temple, thus revealing its beauty. It is at the casino that Ray comes upon her while searching for her husband.
Lila had taken over the parked car when Ray’s husband, leaving the keys in the ignition, had left town on a bus. Lila does not want to give up the car, but Ray is a “pistol packing mama,” and so the Native American reluctantly concurs after a struggle. Both of them needing the money, the two join together in an uneasy scheme to smuggle some Chinese, and then some Pakistani, illegal immigrants across the River and deliver them to a seedy motel on the U.S. side. Thus suspense builds: we worry about the ice on the river cracking; the police catching them—an officer warns Ray in one scene that the person he had seen in her car is known as a smuggler; danger from the rough men who pay them at both ends of their runs; and what will happen with Ricky and T.J. who are left to fend for themselves while their mother is away.
This is a somber and moving story about the hard choices that those left out of the mainstream of society must make. Lila has an agonizing problem of her own: her mother-in-law took her baby away when she went into the hospital to deliver it because the older woman did not think she would make a fit mother. Lila engages in the risky smuggling business because she wants to provide money for her infant son. At the climax of the film the two must make hard decisions that will change their lives forever. What happens will, I suspect, satisfy most viewers, even though we are left wondering about their long-term prospects. The film does not try to solve the social problems of the characters, but it does help us to understand two desperate women caught up in situations beyond their control—and yet who do try to control their own reactions to events, and thus maintain their humanity.
Spoilers in the following—necessary in order to explore most of the issues raised by the filmmaker.
1) How does Ray try to prevent her sons from being disillusioned and/or angry with their father? Especially, how does she deal with the older T.J.’s anger? What had been the husband’s long term problem?
2) What does Ray say to her sons about their dad reveal about her character?
3) Ray is not “meek and mild,” is she? Why do you think she has developed a tough exterior through the years? How could this be dangerous to her own welfare?
4) Were you puzzled at first by Lila’s attention to the baby and her sneaking up and leaving money outside the house?
5) What societal hostility do you see? For example, what does Lila say to Ray about the state trooper who keeps watch on the road? Why will he probably not stop Ray? This is a realistic touch, one that struck me because I served a church next to an Indian reservation in North Dakota, where I soon became aware of the mutual hostility.
6) What do you think of the smugglers profiting on the plight of the refugees? How are the immigrants like Ray and Lila in some ways? Were you puzzled at first as to why the Pakistani woman was so distressed? How did this incident reveal that Ray had more than her own interests at heart? What did she think might be in the duffle bag? How did you feel during this incident when they found out that the bag did not hold terrorist’s explosives, but—?
7) How is T.J. trying to be the man of the house? How do his efforts almost end in disaster? And yet who saves Christmas fro Ricky? How was it necessary for his moral development that the tribal officer visit him? What kind of a man do you think T.J. will become?
8) What did you think of Ray’s and Lila’s decision when cornered by the police? How did you feel when Ray changed her mind in the woods? How is her making this decision similar to what the apostle Paul wrote in the Romans passage?
9) What will Lila and the Eddy’s contribute to each other? That is, what qualities do each have that the other need?
10) How did you feel at the end of the film? What growth did you see in the various characters? Although set during the Christmas season, this is not A Wonderful Life, is it? You might want to compare the two films and their outlook, one dealing with middle class characters, and the other those from the under belly of society.