At this year’s Oscar ceremony, there was a name you may not have recognised amongst the prestigious Best Actress nominees. Of course, everyone knows the likes of Angelina Jolie, Anne Hathaway, Kate Winslet and Meryl Streep. But who was that other lady? You know, the un-famous one? Well, that would have been Frozen River star Melissa Leo; a veteran character actress finally hitting the big time. Starring as a no-nonsense poverty stricken single-mother, Leo became the breakout indie starlet of 2008. Writer director Courtney Hunt also picked up a Best Original Screenplay nomination for her troubles. But did this little known Sundance winner deserve its accolades, or did it simply ride the Academy’s recent obsession with smaller, bleaker films? Perhaps the answer is somewhere in between.

Ray Eddy (Leo) works part time at the local dollar store in Upstate New York, right next to the Mohawk reservation. Her gambling-addict husband has run out on Ray and their two kids a week before Christmas, taking with him the money intended for their new home. Their TV payments are short, and are facing repossession. Popcorn and Tang, the only foods left in the house, are served for breakfast, lunch and dinner. So obviously, times are tough.

Ray has a run in with a short-sighted Mohawk woman named Lila (Misty Upham). The two quarrel over the ownership of Ray’s husband’s abandoned car, and then find themselves in business together. Lila, with her own money troubles, needs the car to smuggle Chinese immigrants across the Mohawk reservation into New York. However, a white women needs to drive to ensure they don’t attract police attention. Ray is apprehensive at first, but the $1000 paydays have their allure. There is just one catch – they must cross a frozen-over river to get the immigrants across the border. Needless to say, it’s not the most reliable path.

The most surprising thing about this movie is just how thrilling it is. Each time Ray and Lila cross the frozen river, the tension is palpable. Late in the film, Ray throws out the luggage of a Pakistani immigrant, fearing it might be terrorist supplies. When the contents of the bag are finally revealed, I guarantee your stomach will be in knots of dread. Hunt manages to wring every possible moment of anxiety from the viewer on a shoestring budget, simply keeping the camera on the faces of Leo and Upham as they carefully travel across the ice.

Leo’s performance is understated without being weak; Ray is hardened, desperate and relentless. However, there are moments of privacy in which she is vulnerable and afraid. This may be a long bow, but I found Ray Eddy to be much like Sarah Connor facing real-world problems. As yet, Judgement Day continues to elude humanity, so the economic crisis will have to do. The success of this film hinges on Leo’s performance. She drags us into her world, whether we like it or not.

While I am reluctant to heap awards-worthy praise on Frozen River, I do appreciate what the film achieves. We are given a glimpse of worlds we rarely see in cinema – families who live in extreme poverty, native-Americans in today’s society and the plight of illegal immigrants. At just over an hour and a half, the film covers a lot of ground. However, the film is particularly grim. It’s tough to love, albeit easy to admire. Frozen River is bleak and uncompromising – and that’s just how the Academy likes it.