Frozen River (15)

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The Independent Culture

The writer-director Courtney Hunt's debut is a modest but thrilling drama about financial emergency and the desperate means two women have adopted to beat it.

It's nearly Christmas in bitterly cold upstate New York and Ray (Melissa Leo) can't keep up with the payments on her new trailer home because her gambling-addict husband has scarpered with the money. She does shift work at the Yankee One Dollar store and has to feed her two boys on popcorn and Tang. When she catches a woman named Lila (Misty Upham) from the nearby Mohawk reservation trying to steal her car she happens upon a dangerous but very lucrative scam: smuggling illegal immigrants in the trunk of her car across the US-Canadian border, via the frozen, ominous St Lawrence River. These two women, reluctant partners in crime, don't much like one another, though they discover they have something in common apart from poverty – Lila had her one-year-old son snatched away by her mother-in-law, while Ray is determined that her 15-year-old son stick at school rather than get a job. Courtney Hunt is unflinching in her examination of these hard-pressed lives, yet she finds glints of humanity in the terse dialogue and the watchful, unsmiling faces of the women. Melissa Leo, Oscar-nominated, gives a superb account of tough, self-sacrificing motherhood, and Misty Upham is nearly as impressive in an even less sympathetic role. The film covers a lot of issues – the economy, racism, crime, the perils of necessity – in a very tight space. It falters only once, tying up the ends too neatly in its final minutes, but after what has gone before perhaps it can be forgiven its lurch towards a happy-ish ending.