Things are not looking very bright and cheery for one family living in rural upstate New York a few days before Christmas. Ray's (Melissa Leo) husband has taken the family savings and run off to gamble them away. Although she works at the Yankee One Dollar Store, she doesn't earn enough money to take care of her two sons. T.J. (Charlie McDermott), the fifteen year old, looks after his younger brother but is very tired of eating Tang and popcorn every day. To make matters worse, Ray's dream of purchasing a new doublewide trailer is in jeopardy unless she can find a way of making some quick money.
By chance, she is thrown together with Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), a Mohawk loner who has found a lucrative career smuggling illegal immigrants into the United States. A widow, she lives alone and wants to get her baby son back from her mother-in-law. The tribal elders know what she is doing and make sure that she can't purchase a car with a trunk where she can hide Chinese and Pakistani immigrants. Ray has a car and is desperate enough to risk everything. But the risk involves the very real danger of driving across the frozen St. Lawrence River.
Frozen River marks the debut of writer and director Courtney Hunt. She has made an emotionally gripping and incredibly suspenseful drama about a single parent whose life is shattered by poverty and debt. This story touches on two contemporary issues: what to do about all the immigrants trying to get into the United States and what to do about all the people who living on the edge of financial meltdown and the loss of their homes. We find ourselves empathizing with people dealing with these problems and as we are drawn in, we find ourselves recognizing the nuances in these challenges.
On a deeper spiritual level, the film is about the power of synchronicity to transform lives and enable individuals to see their connections with others. Before she meets Lila, Ray is tightly wrapped up in her own struggle to survive. Both women are drawn to each other through need, and both are challenged in their relationship to trust. It is not easy for them to do this, but in the end, they discover a bond that goes beyond their troubles.