Oscar 2008: Melissa Leo in Frozen River

Melissa Leo gives an Oscar-caliber performance in “Frozen River,” which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Fest. The movie will be released by Sony Classics on August 1, 2008.

Born in 1960 in New York, Leo is the daughter of Peggy, a teacher, and Arnold Leo, an editor and fisherman. Up until now, Leo has been known for playing the tough-minded shift-Det. Kay Howard on the award-winning TV series “Homicide: Life on the Street,” a role she inhabited for 4 years, from 1993 to 1997. She has also been a regular on “All My Children” and “The Young Riders.”

Among her few feature films are “A Time of Destiny,” “Last Summer in the Hamptons,” “21 Grams,” “Confess,” and “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.”

But it's her superlative performance as Ray, a single mother of two boys scrapping for existence, in the wonderful indie “Frozen River” that will put her on the map. Her work demonstrates what we have known for a long time, that she is a marvelous actress who's been typecast in secondary and supporting roles.

“Frozen River” is a tale of female camaraderie and empowerment, a feature that offers a realistic look at a kind of life seldom depicted on screen. Set in the dead cold winter, in and around a Native American reservation, close to the border between U.S. and Canada, a literally no man's land, the saga depicts working class life at its poorest and most miserable. Paying equal attention to plot and characterization, Hunt is able to integrate gritty personal lives into the larger socio-political contexts of illegal smuggling of foreigners across the border.

It's two days before Christmas in rural upstate New York. Ray's husband Eddy has left her in an impossible situation. Not only is he gone, but he has gambled away all of the familys meager savings. Leaving no trace, and faced with incessant questions of her younger boy about his father's whereabouts, Ray does what every woman would do in such a position, she lies, “Your dad went out on a business trip.” In privacy, though, Ray keeps changing the “welcoming” message on her cel, specifically targeted at her hubby, which offers some comic relief in a yarn that's largely somber and serious.

Ray's excuses are not satisfying to her bright, adolescent son, T.J., who, realizing how dire the situation is, volunteers to quit school and go to work. The family is about to be evicted if Ray doesn't meet her delinquent payments. Rays single wage at the Yankee One Dollar Store cant make the house payment, forcing her to feed her two sons popcorn and Tang. She asks her manager for promotion, for more work, but her pleas are rejected.

Through coincidence, when Ray strikes out to search for her husband, she encounters Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), a tough, street-smart Mohawk woman who is dealing with her own struggle to make ends meet. Lila has found a way to do it, smuggling illegal immigrants into the U.S. Interestingly, the illegal residents come from various countries, including Asians and Pakistani.

The politics of gender, class, and race interface, when the two women collaborate out of necessity on this enterprise. When Ray expresses concerns over crossing the border, Lila keeps saying, “Don't worry, they are not going to arrest you, you're a white woman.” And indeed, the women go on smuggling effectively for three or four times. Ray is stopped by a white benevolent patrolman only once, and for a minor violation, faulty rear parking lights.

Though the movie is an intimate exploration of two women in crisis, Hunt shows quite effectively how larger social forces than personality play a crucial role. The tribal elders disapprove of Lila's doings and attempt to stop her by forbidding anyone to sell her a car. Ray has a car, and although the two women dont trust each other, they team up and share Rays Dodge Spirit to make a run across the frozen St. Lawrence River.

The recurrent image of a solitary car, driven by Ray, with one hand on the wheel, the other holding a gun, shown from close-up and from a long distance is powerful visual motif. (The single car in the white snow inevitably brings to mind a similar image in the Coen brothers' “Fargo”).

The narrative keeps spiraling in various, unanticipated directions. Hunt brings into the saga the issue of modern, troubled single motherhood. Both Ray and Lila are poor single moms, and later in the proceedings, there's a subplot of a Pakistani couple that smuggle in a shopping bag a frozen baby, believed to be dead.

An atmospheric film, replete with small but telling details, with outstanding performances by Melissa Leo and Misty Upham, “Frozen River” is ultimately a deeply emotional, highly humanistic, and even upbeat film about individual courage and sacrifice.

“Frozen River” depicts the continuous strength and viability of the family, while deconstructing old-fashioned or bourgeois definitions of that institution, instead suggesting new, more realistic kinship structures that reflect our rapidly changing conditions.

Leo has paid her dues. In 1985, she was nominated Daytime Emmy Award Outstanding Ingenue/Young Actress in a Drama Series for “All My Children.” And in 2004, she was voted runner-up by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association as Best Supporting Actress for “21 Grams.”

“Frozen River”–a strong indie albeit with no recognizable stars–may or may not play well in our cruel theatrical market that favors big-budget, special-effects Hollywood flicks. But it will be nice to remember Melissa Leo's extraordinary performance at year's end.