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A CONVINCING LOOK AT A COLD WORLD

Frozen River (R) (97 min.) -Desperate times provoke drastic measures in Courtney Hunt's impressive filmmaking debut. Two women with lives as bleak as their Canadian border surroundings begin smuggling illegal aliens into upstate New York.

Ray (Melissa Leo) is a recently deserted mother of two, working part time at a dollar store and searching the couch for coins. She has promised her kids a new double-wide mobile home to replace their shack. Ray can only afford to feed them Tang and popcorn for breakfast.

Lila (newcomer Misty Upham) lives in a cramped camper on the Mohawk reservation, begging or stealing cars she drives across a frozen river to pick up human cargo. Lila also has a toddler, taken from her at birth by an in-law, but maybe she can save enough to earn him back.

These outlaws aren't Thelma and Louise. They meet at gunpoint and never learn much about each other from there. The smuggling rides are dangerous enough to prevent small talk; they're on thin ice literally and figuratively. The pickups get sinister and authorities get suspicious, but Ray and Lila keep taking risks.

Hunt films these scenes with Fargo-like intensity, another frigid trip into anxious ambition gone over the edge. Yet she also provides each woman's backstory, in succinct scenes showing their daily routine in poverty. Frozen River dramatizes an economic level usually ignored or patronized in movies. Ray and Lila have good intentions with bad judgment as their only resort.

Leo is superbly pained, an ordinary-looking woman who despite remarkable talent could only get a role this meaty in an independent film. Hunt wisely lingers on close-ups of her fascinating face, weathered by worry and the cold. Ray is too beaten down for emotional outbursts, but Leo quietly conveys what she'd scream if she would. A

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