When I heard that Quentin Tarantino handed the Grand Jury Prize for best feature to Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, telling the audience that the movie “put my heart in a vise and proceeded to twist that vise until the last frame,” my jaw went slack. A solemn, style-free first feature about two upstate New York single mothers dragged into smuggling illegal immigrants, Frozen River stands for everything Tarantino has dismissed as the dulling of American cinema. And on paper, it sure sounds like a sop to the rich people who go to Sundance for their annual weep over poor people.

Tough economy: Upham and Leo make ends meet

But Tarantino was raised by his mom, and if there’s one thing this movie gets dead right, it’s the desperation of impoverished single mothers trying to fend for their children. And if Frozen River finally gets the terrific actress Melissa Leo her place in the sun to boot, so much the better.

Like Amy Ryan, Leo has the kind of sharply etched features and haunted eyes that earn a steady dollar playing tough cops, harried spouses and other working-class women made harsh by harsh living. Best known as Detective Howard, the tough cop who got written out of television’s Homicide: Life on the Streets, Leo has never landed a meaty supporting film role like the one that put Ryan on Hollywood’s map — if only for a studio minute — in Gone Baby Gone. If Leo were Charlize Theron with artfully applied bags under the eyes, an Oscar nomination would surely be forthcoming for her truculent turn as Frozen River’s Ray Eddy, a mother of two boys who’s abandoned by her gambler husband just as she is about to make a down payment on a prefabricated home.

Ray is prickly, quick on the draw and difficult to like. No plucky homemaker, she fights with the teenage son (the excellent Charlie McDermott), whom she’s had no choice but to saddle with caring for his toddler brother. She’s not above ratting out a tardy female co-worker in hopes of making assistant manager at the local market. And when she reluctantly teams up with Lila (Misty Upham), a Native American who tried to steal Ray’s husband’s car, to ferry illegal refugees across the border, she reveals herself as an instinctive xenophobe, if not an outright bigot.

Hunt is very good at sketching the trailers and dreary bingo halls that these women find themselves in, and shows an astute visual command of the wintry, almost lunar landscape that frames their efforts to survive. But like many first features that began life as shorts and were shot during two weeks with a VariCam, Frozen River can be ragged viewing. Hunt’s a bit free with the thin ice as metaphor and slathered-on pathos, and the movie careens uncertainly between gritty realism, sudden bursts of melodrama and inspiration. Too many bad things happen, then too many good things, and I placed bets with myself on the precise arrival time of the flowering of female solidarity between these two tigresses risking all for their cubs. That it comes on cue in a rushed climax only takes away from Leo’s powerfully direct evocation of Ray’s aloneness, the way she grows so hard and cold with the grind of trying to survive day in, day out, and her willingness to get what she needs off the backs of others, if necessary.

That Ray’s automaton hardness has its limits goes without saying, or Frozen River would never have been picked up by Sony Pictures Classics. But what sticks in memory isn’t Ray and Lila’s 11th-hour redemption but the unnerving lack of basic safety that comes with living on the financial edge. For women like Ray, poverty isn’t just about money. It’s about leaping in desperation into worlds of risk, about endangering themselves, as well as those they love and total strangers, every single day.

FROZEN RIVER | Written and directed by COURTNEY HUNT | Produced by HEATHER RAE and CHIP HOURIHAN | Released by Sony Pictures Classics | Sunset 5, Landmark, Playhouse 7, Town Center 5

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