The earnest Sundance-winning drama Frozen River is one of those movies where a giant, invisible boot seems to be hovering over the characters' heads, just waiting for the right moment to squash them. Until it does, they have to scrape and claw in dangerous circumstances, and the audience can only sit there wincing, powerless, while anticipating the inevitable. It helps that the lead squashee is played by Melissa Leo, a first-rate character actress who's best known for her turn as detective Kay Howard on the groundbreaking NBC show Homicide: Life On The Streets, and who also quietly out-acted the likes of Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, and Benicio Del Toro in 21 Grams. After 20 years of disappearing into roles, Leo finally gets the spotlight she's long deserved in Frozen River, but she plays it just as she would a bit part—subtly, precisely, and never reaching for more theatrics than necessary.
With nicotine stains on her fingers, Leo plays the single mother of two boys, a surly teenager (Charles McDermott) and a moony-eyed youngster (James Reilly), all living in a crumbling trailer in upstate New York. When the boys' gambling-addicted father runs off with what little money the family has, Leo's job as a sales clerk at a local dollar store isn't enough to keep a rent-to-own TV in the house, much less pay for a coveted double-wide. So Leo teams up with another poor single mother, played by Misty Upham, who's involved in an operation to transport immigrants across the frozen St. Lawrence River from Canada to the U.S. Though Upham lives on a Mohawk reservation, which operates by different laws, it's still a very dangerous proposition for both women.
In many respects, Frozen River feels like a prototypical Sundance winner: It's plaintive and minor, small in scale and technical ambition, and concerned with issues affecting working mothers, the poor, Native Americans, and immigrants. What lends it distinction, if only mildly, are the engrossing particulars of the setting, with its uncommon glimpse into tribal law and reservation life, and Leo's performance, which brings overdue attention to a career spent laboring under the radar. If the role brings her more recognition and work, all the better, but Leo certainly isn't lobbying for it. She doesn't show off. She just does what she's always done: Reveals a character for who she is, nothing more, nothing less.