Frozen River 

Reviewer's grade: A

This election year, you hear a lot about the middle-class, but not so much about the poor "? certainly not the kind of marginalized folks who comprise the universe of "Frozen River," an astounding first feature from writer-director Courtney Hunt. Melissa Leo is one of those character actresses whose name you probably don't know, but you 've likely seen her in small parts in scores of movies and television shows.

"Frozen River" affords her the role of a lifetime as Ray Eddy, a hard-bitten, tattooed mother of two boys in wintry upstate New York. Her husband is a compulsive gambler who has absconded with the money they were saving for a new doublewide trailer. Ray searches for the no-account hubby at a bingo parlor on a nearby Mohawk Indian reservation; while there she chases, and catches up with, a grim-faced employee, Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham). The women don't like or trust one another, but both are in dire need of money. Desperation spurs a precarious partnership when Lila introduces Ray to the business of smuggling illegal immigrants, mainly Chinese and Pakistanis, into the U.S. from Canada.

"Frozen River" is gritty and suspenseful, but it is not bleak. Awful events occur, but its characters aren't the self-pitying type. They are survivors, and they are allowed their ambivalences. "Frozen River" is a daring, bold and altogether memorable film. R

"?Phil Bacharach

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