Ray (Melissa Leo) turns to border smuggling to pay the heat bill

Ray (Melissa Leo) turns to border smuggling to keep the heat on.

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Oscar nominations: Best Actress – Melissa Leo, Best Original Screenplay – Courtney Hunt

Times are tough. It’s the dead of winter in Massena, New York, and Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) is a part-time cashier down to feeding her two kids nothing but Tang and popcorn. It gets cold in their rusted-out old trailer, but when your gambling husband takes off with the balloon payment for the double-wide you hoped to buy, what’s a mom to do? Loading Chinese and Pakistani illegal immigrants in the trunk of your car and smuggling them across the border suddenly seems like a viable option.

First-time writer/director Courtney Hunt’s film Frozen River tells the story of two moms desperate for some easy money who learn there is no such thing. Ray forms an uneasy partnership with Lila (Misty Upham), a Mohawk Indian woman who cons her into driving back and forth across a frozen river on the reservation, one of the many unguarded spots on the U.S./Canada border. She needs Ray for her ability to count the cash during transactions (Lila’s eyes are bad, though she is fairly young) and for her car’s push-button trunk release. Ray’s whiteness also means troopers won’t pull them over. Once Ray realizes what’s in her trunk, she hesitates, but decides to do it again. It’s thin ice for both of them, in more ways than one.

The river is that place you shouldn’t go, that thing you shouldn’t do, but that circumstances keep bringing you back to. Melissa Leo has mostly acted in TV shows prior to this (Homicide: Life on the Street), so it’s nice to see her get an Oscar nom for what I believe is her first starring role in a feature film. She is fierce and sad as Ray, and her frustration as her desperate bids to keep her family afloat don’t work out is heartbreaking.

Widowed Lila is no better off than Ray – fired from her job at an Indian bingo parlor, she hides in her mother-in-law’s back yard at night to spy on her toddler son, who was abducted from her. She leaves the money she earns in a potato chip can by the back door, but M-I-L promptly rejects it. Misty Upham is the picture of dumb suffering in the role, her stoic silence resembling that of a short-haired Marilyn from Northern Exposure.

When they realize that on their last trip they left a baby in a duffel bag out on the river ice, you’d think they’d quit the game, but like any addict, they both need one last score. It’s one too many, of course, and someone’s got to pay the price. Who will it be?

Oscar Run status: In addition to movies reviewed here, saw Defiance, Vicky Christina Barcelona, Kung Fu Panda, and Man On Wire, which leaves 17 more movies to see in 19 days. Gotta pick up the pace! Coming soon: Review of Man On Wire.