All Ray Eddy wants for Christmas is the doublewide trailer she's been saving for, squirreling away her meager wages from her part-time job at the Yankee One Dollar Store. It's not hard to imagine that she also wants a husband who doesn't have a gambling problem, who won't take that money—the final balloon payment for the family's yet-to-be-delivered new home—and run off, leaving Eddy (played by a pitch-perfect Melissa Leo) with two sons and nothing to feed them but popcorn.
But Eddy's not the kind of woman who gets what she wants, as evidenced by her current, poorly insulated trailer and dead-end job. Instead, she finds herself searching for her suddenly gone husband on the nearby Mohawk Reservation in upstate New York, then chasing a Mohawk woman she spots driving his car.
Eddy catches up with the woman, Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), a move that shifts the course of her hardscrabble life. Littlewolf, sensing Eddy's desperation—a feeling Littlewolf is all too familiar with herself—tells her of a Mohawk friend who will buy one of Eddy's cars for two grand. The two go to see the friend, who's on the other side of the US-Canada border, but still on the reservation. Instead of buying Eddy's car, he stuffs a pair of illegal immigrants in the trunk and hands her a wad of cash.
Eddy is now a smuggler, and Littlewolf—who maintains that sneaking people across the border isn't illegal on the reservation—her business partner.
Writer/director Courtney Hunt masterfully keeps up the subtle suspense throughout Frozen River, and it's easy to see why the film won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. As the unlikely pair skirts the law and forms a tenuous bond, Leo and Upham's intense characters carry the all-too-real story in a piece that sets the bar for independent American film one notch higher.