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Frozen River 

Directed by Courtney Hunt (Sony)

Ray Eddy lives in a sagging trailer with two kids who've just been abandoned by their gambler father. She works part-time at a dollar store where the manager is half her age. She carries a gun, and she uses it.

It's the kind of role Charlize Theron and Halle Berry gummed themselves up for to win Oscars, but veteran character actor and Best Actress nominee Melissa Leo will no doubt emerge from the awards empty-handed February 22. Her heart-of-flint performance in Frozen River is not a stunt, it's the accumulation of 25 years of quality work.

Courtney Hunt's debut finds Ray in an odd-couple situation with Lila (Misty Upham)---a high-risk, big-pay operation of smuggling people into the US from Canada across the St. Lawrence. But there's nothing funny in this spare, gripping thriller, which takes the myth of the American dream and literally shoots it in the face: All either woman wants is a home for her kids, and their daily living---we never see Ray eat or shower---is more daunting than state troopers or thin ice.

"I'm tired of people stealing from me," says a frustrated Ray, and it's a testament to this tough film that she's not talking about illegal immigrants. ---Tara Thorne


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