Frozen River opens Friday in select theaters

The Sundance Film Festival and the Oscars are institutions that often deserve the eye-rolling and exasperation that their common devotion to glitz and middle-brow convention frequently provokes. Yet both have an undeniable usefulness in boosting films that otherwise would face the steepest of uphill battles. Sometimes, in fact, their very different agendas even coincide.

I have the feeling that will be the case with a very worthy indie drama called Frozen River. If the title alone doesn’t scream “uncommercial,” suffice it to add that Courtney Hunt’s debut feature concerns poverty, illegal immigration and ethnic tensions along the U.S.-Canada border.

Given the fast-eroding state of indie film distribution, it’s not hard to imagine that Frozen River wouldn’t have gained a theatrical release had it not deservedly won the top prize for dramatic films at Sundance this year. Its next coup, I predict, the one that will get it seen by lots of folks with no ready access to an art house, will come when it scores an Oscar nomination for its lead actress, Melissa Leo.

Leo’s performance, as a hard-bitten working class woman driven to desperate measures to keep her family together, is one of those lapidarian acting accomplishments that would stand out in any yearbut does so especially in an era notoriously short of great female roles. If you’re like me, you’ll be mesmerized by it from the first moment the camera peers into her craggy, determined face, and you’ll be talking about it for days afterward.

Yet Leo isn’t the only formidable female talent behind Frozen River.

I first encountered Courtney Hunt in the mid-’90s when her 20-minute M.F.A. film for Columbia University, Althea Faught, had the honor of being premiered at the New York Film Festival (it was subsequently shown on PBS). A brilliantly honed Civil War drama about the choices a woman makes during the starvation siege of Vicksburg, the film certainly marked Hunt as a talent to watch. And given that she was a native Tennessean, I figured that her inevitable first feature might also be about the South.

Instead, she turned in the opposite direction, venturing about as far north as you can go in the U.S. without drowning. Even so, her film exudes a quality that Southern artists are renowned fora sense of place.

Here’s what Hunt’s very simple director’s statement says about Frozen River‘s genesis:

“I wrote this film after learning about women smugglers at the border of New York State and Canada who drive their cars across the frozen St. Lawrence River to make money to support their kids. The risk involved compelled me to write a story, not only about smuggling at the northern border, but also about what life circumstances would lead someone to take such chances.”

In the life of Ray Eddy (Leo), those circumstances are simple and stark. Her good-for-nothing husband has just taken the family savings and decamped, leaving her to care for 5-year-old Ricky (James Reilly) and teenager T.J. (Charlie McDermott). Ray has a job at a discount store, but it barely pays enough to get by. Christmas is approaching and so is Ray’s last chance to make the necessary payments on a doublewide mobile home that, in this story, functions much like the bicycle in Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thiefit’s the just-out-of-reach ticket to a new and better life.

Ray’s chance to bring herself some quick economic relief arrives in the unlikely form of a young, sullen, round-faced Mohawk woman. Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham) has family troubles of her own, and fends off poverty with a risky sideline: driving across the frozen St. Lawrence with illegals from places like China and Pakistan in her trunk.

Since Lila needs a car like Ray’s to continue her illicit trade, a deal is struck. The women clearly don’t like each otherLila’s as suspicious of whites as Ray is leery of her new Native American partnerbut they develop a necessary complicity as they visit a squalid camp on the Canadian side of the border, pick up their hapless foreign charges and head back across the river, leaning toward the dashboard’s heater and squinting into the night as ice crunches relentlessly beneath the car’s tires.

There’s a vivid, persuasive particularity to everything that Hunt shows us. The wintry landscapes, the anonymous discount stores and Indian-run gambling houses, the complicated relationshipslike Ray’s with her young boss and an interested law officerthat the film is often able to describe fully in a few telling words or glances. The river itself, which we seldom glance except in quick snatches at night, is not only an obvious, multivalent symbol, but also an almost palpable presence: You feel it in your bones even when it’s out of sight.

The film conjures a gritty, convincing image of present-day poverty along the nation’s social and geographic margins while also reminding us how tricky such subject matter has always been for Americans movies. Since most viewers of a film like Frozen River live at a very comfortable remove from the hardscrabble world it depicts, its vision risks coming across as either unreflective sociological voyeurism or a piously sentimental lecture on the innate nobility of the underclass.

Dare a filmmaker venture into such a realm and craft a movie that’s both searchingly compassionate and entertaining? Like D.W. Griffith (whose frozen river in Way Down East was borrowed from Stowe’s in Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and De Sica before her, Hunt is wise enough to know that the lures of storytelling are not her enemy. As her film rolls on, it develops into something like a northern Neorealist thriller, a ride across thin and treacherous ice that’s at once harrowing and surprisingly suspenseful.

That ride could seem contrived and merely entertaining were it not for the film’s solid grounding in real-world perplexities and behaviors. Hunt, who shot the movie in 24 days of low-budget work in subzero temperatures near Plattsburgh, N.Y., has a true gift for the subtleties of naturalistic filming and performance. Among a thousand small moments and touches that add up to a brilliant evocation of a frazzled, frost-bitten world, Ray’s interactions with her kids are beautifully observed and captured, right down to the meals of Tang and popcorn she serves them when money’s tight.

The film’s sturdiest grounding, though, comes in Ray herself, as incarnated by Melissa Leo. This actress’ work is as precise and forceful as any performance I’ve seen in a movie this year. Ray’s cigarettes and tattoos, her tough choices and quietly agonized deliberations, her complex and slowly evolving partnership with Lila, in whom she eventually sees a distant reflection of herselfall of these add up to the kind of indelible dramatic portrait that stays with you long after the movie’s over.

Leo has joked (?) that Hunt cast her and Misty Upham (who’s excellent too) mainly because they could drive on ice. Obviously, I think Leo is heading for an Oscar nomination for proven talents far beyond that. But hey, Frozen River left me convinced that these two women can drive on ice. Great movies often begin in details that small.

Traitor opens Friday throughout the Triangle

You might think that any contemporary geopolitically themed movie called Traitor would be subtitled The Joe Leiberman Story. But no. Jeffrey Nachmanoff’s polished thriller actually concerns a different form of dual (triple? quadruple?) loyaltyit’s the story of a Muslim jihadist who may be more loyal to his American roots than his fellow fanatics suppose. Or maybe not.

Actually, as a brief prologue shows us, Samir Horn (impressive Don Cheadle) was born not in the U.S. but in Sudan, to a pious father. Sent to America as a boy, he went to Afghanistan with the Army, then stayed on in Pakistan after his service was over.

When we first see him as an adult, he’s selling plastic explosives to a group of jihadists in Yemen, and goes to prison with them when they’re rounded up in an anti-terrorism sweep. After forging some crucial alliances behind bars, Samir’s ready to wage jihad against the Westfirst Europe, then Americawhen he’s sprung by a prison break. Little does he know that he’s being tracked all the while by an FBI team led by a taciturn Southerner named Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce), who, having been raised by a Baptist preacher, develops a wary sort of sympathy for his ideological opposite.

A smart, expansive, expertly tooled genre movie of the sort that once was the exclusive province of the major studios (this one comes from indie Overture Films), Traitor delivers the entertainment goods as effectively as any Jason Bourne caper. Yet it’s also equally intriguing in what it suggests about the differing views Americans have of Muslimsincluding those in their midstin the decade following Sept. 11.

Reflecting the fearful suspicions of the unworldly and prejudiced, it imagines that there are scores of ordinary-seeming Muslims in “sleeper” cells across the U.S. who are ready to turn themselves into suicide bombers as soon as Jihad Central calls. Scary, no?

On the other hand, its explosive/ simplistic thriller premise is thoroughly offset by the complex and sophisticated portrait the film draws of Samir Horn. A decade ago it would have been impossible to imagine a big entertainment film that had a Muslim wrestling with the true meaning of his faith as the protagonist. That such a character is both credible and compelling today shows, at very least, how engaged Americans have become in a few short years with the Muslim world and its intricacies.