Critics overdose on metaphors, so I'm going to limit myself to one. The title “Frozen River” refers literally to water dividing upstate New York and ec, but it also applies to the single moms at the story's core, whose blood has turned almost to ice after years of emotional neglect.
The two are Ray and Lila (Melissa Leo and Misty Upham). Ray's gambling-addicted husband has just split, taking the money she was saving to upgrade their trailer to a double-wide with room enough for their two sons. Lila's husband has been driven away by her Mohawk family, which has also taken custody of her baby on the grounds that she'll never support him.
That's a fair assumption, as Lila keeps quitting jobs. The only thing she wants to do is carry Chinese or Pakistani immigrants across the line from Quebec; she's so well-known as a human smuggler that the local auto dealership won't sell her any car with a trunk. (She's not prosecuted because tribal police don't care, and state police have no authority on the reservation.)
Writer-director Courtney Hunt, who makes her feature debut in both capacities, slips on the ice of improbability only a couple of times. (Sorry, I had a metaphor left.) One melodramatic event, which triggers a change of heart for Ray, seems neither credible nor in character. But Hunt has keenly observed the details of impoverished rural life.
She's caught the mutual resentment that may exist when whites and native Americans live alongside each other in poverty: The Indians feel whites exploit them or are automatically born into privilege; the whites feel Indians get away with misbehavior because tribal authorities won't keep them in check. Ray and Lila take a while to understand each other, and there's no chance they'll exchange hugs and e-mails.
Upham lets Lila thaw slowly; she remains unsympathetic for a long time, which is the right way to play her. Charlie McDermott and Michael O'Keefe do good work as Ray's elder son, who isn't as grown-up as he thinks, and a quiet policeman, who isn't as unobservant as we think.
I first noticed the rangy, sad-faced Leo playing the long-suffering wife of Benicio Del Toro in “21 Grams” five years ago. I've thought since that she's one of America's most underrated character actresses, and “Frozen River” confirms that opinion.