In 2002, Upham made her big-screen debut in the Chris Eyre-directed Skins, the first of many roles to draw on her American Indian heritage. That same year, she made her small-screen debut in another Eyre project, the TV movie Skinwalkers.
Two more TV movies and a film followed before Upham cut her long hair and gained weight to take on the role of a Mohawk Indian mother and widow who keeps her family afloat by smuggling illegal immigrants across the border in Frozen River (2008) -- a role for which she received an Independent Spirit Award nomination.
When their father disappears, three strong-willed women return to their childhood home and to their equally strong-willed mother. As they search for their patriarch, the dysfunctional family members wind up facing difficult truths about themselves.