Drama derived from characters in desperate situations are not exactly unusual but very rarely are they done as well as Frozen River. Courtney Hunt who writes and directs ( and also earned an academy nod for the Screenplay ) gave the film the tagline "Desperation knows no borders." which plays obviously on the characters state of affairs but also neatly ties in with a major part of the plot.
Frozen River is set in a small town on the New York/Canadian border. Within this town is a Mohawk Indian reservation that straddles the St. Lawrence River and extends into Canada. You can enter the reservation in America, drive through it, cross the titular frozen river, drive through the other half of the reservation, and exit in Canada -- and thus circumvent the normal border-crossing regulations. Local cops keep a vigilant eye just outside the reservation's boundaries, but as long as you don't give them any reason to be suspicious they have no reason to stop you and check your trunk/boot to see if you've smuggled something across the border.
That being pertinent because Ray ( Melissa Leo ) a struggling mother of two kids with a part time job in a thrift shop has been left in the lurch by her gambling addicted husband who has run off with the money they had saved in order to buy a new more luxurious condo , replacing the crappy one they currently exist in. Then she meets Lila (Misty Upham), a young Mohawk woman who lives in an even smaller trailer on the reservation . Lila has procured the car left by Rays runaway husband but she knows how to earn money transporting immigrants across the border from Canada to the United States, hiding them in a car's trunk and taking advantage of the reservation's abnormal geography. Ray is a good foil , frantic for money also but being a white woman, she's less likely to be stopped by the local police. It's an easy payday , all you got to do is drive across the frozen river and the pay beats thrift shop wages hands down . Until of course it all goes awry and the arrangement becomes problematic to say the least .
Frozen River is a brilliantly acted (Melissa Leo is sensational and deservedly earned an Oscar nomination too ) subtly paced, tautly scripted and at times truly suspenseful film that touches on empathy , hopelessness and survival by sheer bloody-mindedness. It revels in an asceticism and social realism a million miles away from most of the film product of the country whose quiet desperation it represents.
It also gives the viewer a sliver of hope for the conclusion .For a good deal of it,s running time Frozen River is a pragmatic rather cold hearted film but by the final third a rather reticent thaw sets in. No sure it is the sort of film anybody would want to watch repeatedly but for a one time slice of American indie cinema Frozen River is hard to beat.