Character, Stripped to the Bone

Lisa Rosenberg April 7, 2009

For the writer, traditional, instantly recognizable heroes, such as the everyman in Wall-E or the underdog in Slumdog Millionaire, are both easier to create and predictably satisfying for both creator and audience. We see the mountain dead ahead for these characters. The obstacles—and summoned courage and wit to overcome them—line up like so many hurdles on a track.

But another kind of hero, the kind that carries such small, sober films as Chop Shop (2007) and Frozen River (2008), presents deeper challenges in the building of character: attention to the subtlest details of behavior and to the smallest shifts in the world of the character, which signal a hero’s journey both profound and deeply internal. These are heroes whose accomplishment over tremendous adversity may consist simply in gaining infinitesimal ground; that, and maintaining a steady flame of integrity in the most dispiriting circumstances.

Watching the steady build of character development in stories such as these can be especially instructive to writers, as it proceeds without the psychological comfort or visual distractions of a more beautiful setting or more forgiving life circumstances for the characters. It’s the art of creating characters that inhabit and even root each scene, not through their power over their circumstances, but through their steady, unflinching movement forward. These stories build characters from the bare bones, determining what drives and sustains them, no matter what comes—and define the shape of their primal instincts as they mark their paths in the world.

The literal and emotional landscape that Frozen River traverses moves beyond realism to the theatrical. The frozen river of the title serves as stark, theatrical stage set—a blank, snow-covered passage between two countries—as well as brutally accurate metaphor for the life of the character herself, swirling with modest desires underneath her daily grind to survive. One of those desires is to enjoy a bubble bath in a new house trailer, but she is stopped dead by circumstances, just when what she wants is almost in view.

As the story opens, Ray, a woman in early middle age, perches in her open car outside her dim trailer at the edge of America, where she has reached a literal and psychic precipice. She’s agonizingly alone, despite the company of her two sons after their gambling-addict father has fled with the house money. Her bare foot touches the snowy ground; just two tears drift down her clenched face before she fights them back and yanks herself into motion. She’ll go to look for her husband—to no avail. And even though she’s about to lose her deposit on the new trailer she could have almost afforded before he left, her employer refuses to give her more hours or even grant her his attention.

Ray inhabits a world almost completely adrift from human community. Her only callers are creditors or cops, and sending the boys to school each morning and enduring part-time shifts at a job she is always in danger of losing, mark her only routines. What keeps her going is the potent image of a new trailer, the one she’s saving those unopened bottles of bubble bath for—not just because it will replace everything that’s wrong with the current trailer. On some deep level, she is willing it to replace everything that’s wrong with her life.

Just as alone is her counterpart in the story, Lila, a young Native American woman who lives on the Mohawk reservation that splays across the U.S.-Canadian border. Lila, a smuggler of human beings, is both enterprising in her effort to make her way, and lost in a land that not only lacks the usual rules, but also appears to erase the boundaries by which we define a life.

Already an outcast on the reservation, she has buried her grief at the recent loss of her husband beneath the more immediate grief prompted by her mother-in-law’s abduction of her one-year-old son. Lila is uncommonly still on the surface, nearly rigid—but as we’ll come to learn, deeply layered underneath.

The almost random series of circumstances by which the women come to team as smugglers—each swindling the other at first, but also recognizing their shared need for basic cash—is less what drives the story forward than is the progression of each character, step by step, as she navigates the exceedingly thin ice of her life.

If Lila continues to smuggle human beings across the border, escaping onto the reservation to avoid police pursuit, she’ll lose what little protection she has from her home community. For Ray, perhaps she can lose the down payment on the dreamed-of trailer and still return to better meals than the present fare of popcorn and Tang—but the journey of her soul has already burst past these lowest of expectations. When she begins and then continues to smuggle border-crossers in the trunk of her car, it’s because the survival of her most essential self is at stake.

When the story reaches its surprising conclusion, it marks the smallest of steps forward—not resolving the profound issues in either woman’s life, but offering a portrait of characters who have gained strength and even a kind of grace through their unexpected kindnesses to one another.

Chop Shop
opens in a decidedly different landscape, one alive with movement and noise—except at night, when the streets are deserted and forlorn as the end of the world. Alejandro or "Ale", a street kid of perhaps 10, navigates a world of illegal auto disassembly and retooling in Queens with startling equanimity, learning the tricks of the trade from his boss, who also has allotted him a scrap of an apartment above the shop.

Very gradually, Ale’s quick pace begins to reveal not just his enterprising nature, but also a restlessness fueled by need. His frequent calls to locate his 16-year-old sister, Isamar, belie his need for connection, for family. Knowing how unfettered she is by the usual structure of life—school, a job, a relationship, Ale opens his apartment to her as soon as she arrives, and is quick to get her a job and to try to keep her happy—wooing her with new shoes, promising that they’ll buy a food truck and start their own business.

Though early in the film, Ale’s all drive—stuffing his hard-earned dollars into a coffee can that he hides near a bridge, he’s quick to note that the adults in the picture can not be completely trusted—especially his boss, who flares with anger whenever he sees Ale counting his pay.

Chop Shop
arrives with no backstory to speak of, but the story going forward unwinds with the most incremental changes. Ale plays less with fellow street orphan Carlos, steps up his side occupations—selling DVDs and candy from unknown sources—and finally engages in wholesale purse-snatching. He’s determined to buy the food truck, not just so he’ll be his own man, but so that his union with his sister will be cemented—she won’t take off again. These changes unfold sometimes in action, but more often, only in attitude—the look on his face when his employer demands again that he stop counting his money, and his stiff walk when he realizes that his sister really is a prostitute.

As he catches onto his sister’s business on the side, he grows from troubled kid brother to brash enforcer, finally yanking her from a car and summoning her home. At the end of the film, nothing’s better. He has been cheated, having spent his money on a food van with irreparable cooking equipment. But for the moment, his sister is still there, and he’s beside her. In the last moments of the film, the simple act of feeding pigeons becomes a frenzied, defiant motion—he’s alive, still here, and buoyed by an energy to confront the day that his sister, finally, can’t help but share.

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