The sense of desperation is almost as palpable as the ice-cold temperatures in the stark and moving Frozen River, a heart-wrenching tale of two mothers doing what they believe they need to do to provide for their children.

The sense of desperation is almost as palpable as the ice-cold temperatures in the stark and moving Frozen River, a heart-wrenching tale of two mothers doing what they believe they need to do to provide for their children.

Ray (Melissa Leo) is a down-on-her-luck mother of two whose gambling-addict husband just fled town with the money for their new trailer. Her part-time wages at the dollar store don't even cover decent meals for the kids, but Ray's not ready to give up on her double-wide dreams.

So when she crosses paths with Lila, a surly bingo worker living on the nearby Mohawk reservation, she's drawn in by her offer of an easy $2,000. Ray thinks she's going to be selling her car, but Lila's actually involved in a much darker business - smuggling Asians across the Canadian border.

The movie doesn't go into the moral quandaries involved in human trafficking, wisely choosing to focus on the gut reactions that lead each woman to do what she decides to do. The dialogue is spare but effective, and both actresses deliver wonderfully haunting performances, relying on their prematurely wrinkled faces and perpetually grim eyes to convey more than some emotionally manipulative speech ever could.

"Frozen River"

Opens Friday at Landmark's Gateway Theater

Grade: A

While it's easy to disagree with what the characters do, it's hard to say what you would do under the same circumstances. Their story will stick with you.