Misty Upham and Melissa Leo, in 'Frozen River'

Dir. Courtney Hunt
(R) ★ ★ ★ ½

In a movie season filled with mixed decisions, it’s a pleasant surprise to see a film that simply works. Frozen River, the feature writing and directing debut of Courtney Hunt, is a compelling story, features characters presented with understanding and insight, and develops according to who they are and what they need.

Melissa Leo, in a brilliant performance, brings toughness and pragmatism to Ray Eddy, a woman living with her two sons in a trailer park in upstate New York. When the film opens, she is awaiting the delivery of a double-wide trailer for her family that she can’t pay for; her husband, a gambling addict, has stolen the money and left for parts unknown. Will he ever come back? Perhaps — Ray lets her sons believe what they want to believe, but she’d much rather have the money back than the husband.

In searching for him, Ray discovers Lila (Misty Upham), a Mohawk Indian woman who found his car at a bus depot with the keys still inside and took off with it. The car has a spacious trunk, important in Lila’s line of business. She manipulates Ray into a trip across the Canadian border, where they pick up illegal immigrants to smuggle across the frozen river back into the United States. Ray’s presence is advantageous; white women don’t get pulled over. And as she watches Lila collect money for the deliveries — $1200 for pickup and another $1200 for drop-off — Ray’s next decision seems inevitable. Is it dangerous? Seems straightforward enough. Is it immoral? Yes, but so is letting your children starve.

I resist discussing the plot. Characters behave according to their circumstances, and the story ends where it must. What Courtney Hunt does most effectively is observe her characters as they muddle through. Ray’s relationship with her older son, T.J. (Charlie McDermott), is of particular interest. He wants to get a job to support the family, but Ray wants him to finish school. He doesn’t understand that she is trying to protect him. For him, teenage rebellion isn’t staying out late or cutting class, it’s taking a blowtorch under the house to thaw the pipes.

The blowtorch is important. T.J. got it from his father, and it comes to symbolize the father and reflect how the boy and his mother view him. T.J. cherishes it as a gift; he idealizes his dad and blames Ray for chasing him away. But Ray doesn’t want him to touch it: When his father gave it to him, he was passing off his responsibilities along with it. T.J. has a five-year-old younger brother (James Reilly) and is as close to a father as the child has ever had.

Ray and Lila grow closer. There is a moving scene where Ray watches through a window as Lila encounters her infant son, who was taken away from her by her in-laws. It is meaningful because it represents a turning point in their relationship: Ray sees the mother in Lila and in that moment understands her as an equal.

Frozen River is more about motherhood than about human trafficking or illegal immigration. Ray and Lila make the decisions they make for the sake of their children, and faced with poverty you choose from the options you have. There’s the border. There’s the river to cross. That’s where the opportunity lies. That’s where the money is. When we see it through their eyes it’s a no-brainer — pop the trunk and drive.