Someday it’ll get its own post, but invariably I’m happier with and more interested in the screenwriting nominations than the Best Picture ones.  Granted, that’s partially because there are ten screenwriting slots.  But they always seem to contain at least one movie I think was one of the top five Oscar movies of the year, but didn’t make the best picture cut.  This year is WALL-E, of course, but in the past few years have included Lars and the Real Girl, The Squid and the Whale, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, American Splendor, and (because I’m not afraid to go there) About a Boy.

So I was intrigued when I saw Frozen River pop up with a screenwriting nomination.  By the time I popped the DVD out of the player, I was still intrigued.  Not by the movie, which wasn’t terribly interesting, but by how the movie ended up with a screenwriting nomination.  The script hadn’t won many awards, wasn’t nominated by the WGA, and it was Courtney Hunt’s first screenplay.  Ascribing it to savvy Oscar marketing seems unlikely given the film’s shoestring budget.  And, oh yeah, the For Your Consideration ad doesn’t mention the script or Hunt.

Certain elements of the movie do smack of Oscar bait.  Melissa Leo plays a woman whose gambling addict husband recently left, only days before Christmas.  And who decides to run illegal immigrants across the border to help make ends meet as her part-time job at the dollar store isn’t putting food (other than popcorn) on the table for her two sons.  And Leo’s accomplice is a Native American living a trailer who desperately wants to get her one year old child back.

But the reason for my surprise (and the reason the film may be described as a “small” movie) is the very narrow, linear path of the movie.  Melissa Leo doesn’t have money, wants some, and sees making runs as opportunity to get some.  Anything broader than that is more or less disregarded and setbacks of any real sort are nonexistent.  There’s no discussion (in the dialogue or thematically) of the ethics of illegal immigration.  Not much of a comment of the relationship of the reservation to the rest of the area, or even much of a glance at the rest of the area at all.  There’s no evil character keeping Leo down, no particular obstacle she has to overcome.

(spoilers after the jump)

Which is a long way of saying that while stuff happens, nothing really happens.  I didn’t find any of the characters particularly compelling, save for maybe Leo’s older son.  The subplot with the immigrants’ baby felt pretty unnatural, and I’m not sure it added anything to the story.  The ending had potential, but I think the pacing was a bit off, some more weight could have been placed on the decision of who would take the fall.

I would like to point out that I did like the final shot, with the new house arriving and no one seeing it yet.  And as I mentioned, Leo’s older son was kind of interesting, the stolen credit card numbers subplot mostly worked.  As a side note, maybe I’m not reading the right things, but no one seems to be mentioning that Michael O’Keefe has a supporting role in the movie has a state trooper.  O’Keefe won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Great Santini and was married to Bonnie Raitt for a few years.  But he’s best known for playing Danny Noonan (the main character) in Caddyshack.

So I don’t understand or agree with the screenplay nomination.  I applaud the Academy for continuing the trend of looking off the beaten path, I just would have preferred they looked elsewhere, though admittedly pickings are slim this year.  The hype surrounding Melissa Leo certainly helped, and again, I’m a bit perplexed at her nomination.  There aren’t any Oscar-clinching scenes, where she breaks down, goes crazy, or really any three minute section one could highlight as Acting.  It is a toned-down performance, a striking contrast to Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky.  But again, it is hard to see Oscar showing some love to a veteran character actress as a bad thing.