Frozen River - Melissa Leo plays a working-class woman drawn into people smuggling in Courtney Hunt’s gritty blue-collar thriller

Melissa Leo. Who? No idea? I thought as much. If, though, the name of this 48-year-old American actress does ring a faint bell it’s probably because she was the odd one out among this year’s Oscar nominees; the little known, unstarry, rank outsider alongside Kate Winslet, Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway and Angelina Jolie in the 2009 contest for Best Actress.

She won the nod for her role as a poverty-stricken single mother who gets drawn into people smuggling in debutant director Courtney Hunt’s gripping low-budget thriller Frozen River – delivering a portrayal of blue-collar pluck that stood out amid the glossy competition for its unaffected honesty and grit.

When Hollywood royalty play blue-collar characters, it’s hard to shake off the impression that they’re slumming. No matter how good the make-up or how good the performance, it’s hard to forget that we are watching a star – just think of Angelina Jolie attempting to hide her beauty under a cloche hat in Changeling.

Frozen River - Melissa Leo plays a working-class woman struggling to hold onto her job at the local Yankee One Dollar store in Courtney Hunt’s gritty blue-collar thriller

Seeing Leo’s wrinkled, weathered, defiantly Botox-free face up there on screen in Frozen River, however, doesn’t require the suspension of disbelief we usually make for Hollywood films; the mental adjustment that allows us to accept Meryl Streep in a wimple as a fearsomely strict 1960s Bronx nun in Doubt or a dowdy Kate Winslet as an uneducated tram conductor in 1950s Berlin in The Reader.

Even if you know Leo from her roles as Benicio Del Toro’s wife in 21 Grams, as Tommy Lee Jones’s married lover in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada or as Det. Sgt. Kay Howard in Homicide: Life on the Streets, when you watch Frozen River you don’t see her, you see hard-up mother Ray Eddy scrabbling for coins down the back of the sofa to give her sons lunch money.

Right away, you’re there in Ray’s battered trailer in Massena, New York State, close to the Canadian border, sharing her anger at the departure of her gambling-addicted husband, who’s just run off with the savings she intended to use on a new home (a bigger, double-wide trailer); sharing her desperation when part-time work at the local Yankee One Dollar Store dries up; and sharing her scrappy determination to hold her family together.

Frozen River - Melissa Leo plays a working-class woman drawn into people smuggling in Courtney Hunt’s gritty blue-collar thriller

And you’re right there with Ray when surly young Mohawk woman Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham) draws her into the lucrative but perilous enterprise of smuggling illegal immigrants across the frozen St Lawrence River into the US. With a better-known performer in the role, you might look beyond the character and start counting the contrivances in Hunt’s tale, but Leo’s gritty authenticity ensures that Frozen River never loosens its icy, unbearably tense grip. Does her Oscar nomination mean that Leo will now scrub up and put on some Hollywood gloss in her next films? Somehow, I don’t think so.

[swf]http://uk.player.filmtrailer.com/v3.1/&mid=1562&channel_user_id=441100180-1&repeat=1&volume=0[/swf]

To activate the sound in the trailer: hold your cursor over the screen to reveal the control panel and click on the volume control in the bottom right-hand corner.

On general release from 17 July.

Read an interview with Melissa Leo by Alex Simon at The Hollywood Interview.