If you thought Erin Brockovich was too user-friendly, in that old Hollywood way, then you might want to check out Frozen River, where Melissa Leo plays a working-class mom without Julia Roberts' million-dollar smile. Leo's Ray Eddy doesn't take on an entire power company all by herself. She has enough trouble just feeding her kids, who are getting by on popcorn and Tang for breakfast as it is. They all live in a single-wide trailer that Ray hopes to trade in for a double-wide. But the man of the house, a gambling addict, has run off to Atlantic City with the next payment. Ray's broke.
She's also desperate, a condition that Frozen River conveys with both raw emotion and admirable restraint. Until late in the movie, writer-director Courtney Hunt doesn't resort to melodrama or moral uplift. And you feel like you're watching not a feature film but a documentary, so close to the bone does Hunt keep her gaze. But Hunt has another trick up her sleeve: a thriller plot that she handles with the same low-key finesse. For utterly believable reasons, Ray becomes involved in the smuggling of illegal aliens across the Canadian-U.S. border, an operation rife with danger.
Her partner in crime is Lila (Misty Upham), a Mohawk woman who takes advantage of her reservation's straddling the border to drive people across the frozen St. Lawrence River in the trunk of her car - actually, Lila's car. (It's less likely to be stopped by cops.) These two aren't exactly the Lone Ranger and Tonto; in fact, they detest each other, but what choices do they have? Seriously, what choices do they have? Frozen River asks that question in such a nonjudgmental way that you can't tell whether what you feel for Ray is respect or pity or mere tolerance or outright disgust. Leo's utterly vanity-free performance invites all these responses and more.
Frozen River, Sundance