Unless you follow the Hollywood trade publications, you may not yet recognize the name Courtney Hunt. But with her new movie, Frozen River, ready for its August 1 debut in area theaters, arthouse fans across the city are going to start hearing an awful lot about Hunt’s quintessential too-good-to-be-true New York story.
She studied filmmaking at Columbia, where she pursued her MFA, before successfully submitting a short film, also called Frozen River, to the New York Film Festival. She was then able to leverage that short — and the NYFF buzz — into a feature film, using the momentum to keep the same acting talent (Melissa Leo and Misty Upham) involved with the project. Her editor encouraged her to submit the film to Sundance, the crew rushed to get a rough cut in by the deadline and the film was chosen as one of the 16 official competitors in this year’s “dramatic competition.”
On January 26, mere days after the film was picked up for distribution by Sony Pictures Classics, it was chosen by the Sundance jury as best in show, walking away with the Grand Jury Prize.
“It was a bit surreal,” Hunt now says from her upstate New York home. “It was strangely calm after that. We win the award, and it’s very much, ‘Ok, what happens now?’ It wasn’t so obvious and instantaneous, but little by little, as we’ve gotten closer to the release of the film, things suddenly have gotten very busy. We’ve toured a lot of festivals, audiences have responded strongly to the film, and now we’re ready to see what a larger audience thinks.”
In the film, Leo plays Ray, a blue-collar woman in upstate New York coping with the chaos of a missing husband, a growing pile of bills and the possibility that her new home, which is to be delivered via semi truck in a few days, might be turned away if she cannot come up with the final payment. Upham plays Lila, a resident of a nearby Native American reservation who is also down on her financial luck. Making a quick buck here and there by running illegal immigrants from Canada to the United States, packing them in her car and driving across a frozen St. Lawrence River, she is a human trafficker not out of choice but of necessity.
It’s when the community’s elders discover Lila’s illegal activities that they take away her car. When she happens to cross paths with Ray, who is equally desperate for money but who also has access to an automobile, the two passionate, independent women pair up and set about breaking the law.
It’s a timely story in its address of the hot-button election-year topic of illegal immigration. But Hunt says that the feature, and before that the short, have been in the works for years, and any notion of timeliness is coincidence. “It wasn’t something I really set out to do, but it’s definitely given us an additional level of attention. We’re in the middle of a national conversation about immigration right now and we offer a different angle, a look at immigration though another person’s eyes,” Hunt says, referring to the film’s focus not on those being smuggled but those doing the smuggling. “But strangely enough, we screened at New Directors/New Films [earlier this year at MoMA] and no one asked a single question about the issue. I think people get so into the story that the immigration aspect of it only occurs to them later. The way it’s written, it’s not written to scare people but written to look at the point of view of these characters in an extreme situation.”
Hunt, who lives in Columbia County, about three hours north of New York City, says she wrote the script for Frozen River based on what she knows: it’s essentially a rural story about whites co-existing with Native Americans, both groups struggling to pay the bills. In a similar fashion, she says her next project may reflect her earlier experiences living in New York City: another story about immigration, but this time filtered through the lens of turn-of-the-century life in the tenements of the Lower East Side. Consider it the next chapter: “I think an artist writes about what she knows. Frozen River was about the border situation, and this next story comes out of where I’ve been. Living in the East Village, it’s impossible not to walk about New York City and look at and appreciate the wave of immigrants who came through here. The relatives they left and the neighborhoods they built and the reason they look the way they look — it’s curiosity that leads you through the story. It’s fascinating.”