"Frozen River" (2008) is the debut film from writer/director Courtney Hunt. It is a beaten-down tale of two working class mothers who turn to illegal immigrant smuggling to make ends meet when their men leave them (one through death, the other through a gambling addiction).
Ray (Melissa Leo, subtle, heartbreakingly convincing, and Oscar-nominated) has two dependent sons and an impending payment for a double wide (this is the American Dream, right? A double wide?). Her gambling-addicted husband has recently run off with a big chunk of their money when the film starts, and he never shows up again. Ray finds his abandon car at a Native American bingo hall, where she meets Lila (a fiery Misty Upham), a Mohawk woman who's involved in smuggling illegals through her tribe's territory, which straddles the US-Canada border. it is a chance encounter that sends both women down a life-altering path.
Set as it is at the northern border, this is a film about people pushed to the edge of the American experience, both geographically and regarding quality-of-life. Ray and her kids routinely have nothing more than popcorn and tang for dinner, and everyone lives in trailers. Everything is frozen.
The cinematography is sparse and documentary-like, perfectly capturing and complimenting the desolate snowscape. The performances are uniformly superb, but not showy. Hunt clearly knows this desperate world and it's denizens well, and she knows how to let her actors act.
"Frozen River" is not without flaws. being a debut, perhaps this is understandable. The story descends into melodrama towards the end, and there are some minor screen direction issues (I'll admit, this second item is nitpicking on my part). Overall, however, it is a worthwhile filmgoing experience, if you appreciate fine acting, and authentic American stories.