Frozen River at the Northern Border.
film about borders, both physical and psychological, "Frozen River" (Sony Classics) is the somber, understated but dramatically effective feature debut from writer-director Courtney Hunt.
It opens with the arresting image of a woman silently but passionately weeping, then gradually unfolds the reasons for her despair. Upstate New York working-class mom Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo), we learn, has just been abandoned by her gambling-addicted husband, who's taken with him the down payment on the family's desperately needed new trailer home.
So, leaving her 5-year-old son, Ricky (James Reilly), in the care of his 15-year-old brother, T.J. (Charlie McDermott), Ray sets off to retrieve the funds. Her hunt leads instead to a violent confrontation with Lila (Misty Upham), a local Mohawk woman now in possession of the deadbeat's abandoned car.
A former cigarette smuggler, widowed Lila has more recently turned to transporting undocumented aliens across the ice-covered St. Lawrence River from Canada into the United States. Wielding a gun, she compels the normally timid Ray to make such a run, assuring her that, since she's white, the patrolling troopers will let her pass unchallenged.
Though shaken by the ordeal, Ray is drawn to the financial rewards of this human trafficking and volunteers to make another trip. As she and the reticent Lila slowly bond, their repeated border crossings become riskier and they become increasingly desensitized to the plight of the people they're ferrying.
Yet by the film's conclusion, a series of harrowing events breaks the cycle of victimization, pulling both women back from the moral margin across which they've strayed.
An unflinching study of hard times, racial divisions, the plight of migrants and the lure of fast money, "Frozen River" is also, ultimately, a celebration of barrier-transcending friendship, rediscovered decency and the quiet, self-sacrificing heroism that makes for a morally satisfying, if less than happy ending.
Leo and Upham give powerfully restrained performances, with Leo in particular presenting a fully rounded character whose flaws and limitations are as clearly delineated as her virtues. Every detail of the Rust Belt setting adds to the air of authenticity.
The film contains a human trafficking theme, some rough and crude language, and a brief strip-club scene without nudity. The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-III -- adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R -- restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.