FROZEN RIVER

The Baltimore Sun

Starring Melissa Leo, Misty Upham. Written and directed by Courtney Hunt. Released by Sony Pictures. $28.95 *** 1/2 (3 1/2 STARS)

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Melissa Leo, still thought of fondly in Baltimore for playing Sgt. Kay Howard in Homicide: Life On the Street, is simultaneously tender, powerful and vulnerable in Frozen River, a quiet drama about family, sacrifice and loyalty among people who live on little else.

Leo plays Ray Eddy, a mother of two living near an Indian reservation along New York's U.S.-Canadian border, whose gambling-addicted husband has fled a few days before Christmas. Her part-time job at a local discount store doesn't bring in enough to support her and her two sons, ages 5 and 15, but she's determined to make things work - somehow.

Through a chance encounter with a local Indian woman, Lila (Misty Upham), who dabbles in the people-smuggling trade, that "somehow" becomes a modern-day traffic in souls. The women pick up illegals in Canada and then stick them in Ray's car for the ride back to the States.

First-time writer-director Courtney Hunt brings a sure, steady hand to the movie, never forcing anything, never resorting to emotional pyrotechnics. But this is Leo's show, and her Oscar-nominated performance is an acting-class lesson in fleshing-out a character whose appeal isn't readily obvious. It's hard to think of a more flawed cinematic heroine than Ray, or one whose flaws are more heart-rending: when she and Lila accidentally almost kill a child, all she can think about is how she won't be able to get to the Kmart and buy presents for her kids. Everything she does makes sense, even when nothing she does seems right.

Also in stores: : Miracle at St. Anna (Touchstone, $29.99, Blu-ray $34.95) Spike Lee, angered that movies such as Clint Eastwood's Flags of our Fathers ignored the African-American experience in World War II, directed this story of an all-black infantry division trapped in a small Italian town.

Other releases: : The three-disc Clint Eastwood American Icon Collection (Universal, $19.98) includes 1971's Play Misty for Me (his first film as a director), 1975's The Eiger Sanction, 1968's Coogan's Bluff and 1971's The Beguiled. Some deliciously creepy moments find their way into Tales From the Darkside: The First Season (Paramount, $36.98).

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