Falling through the ice

By Steven Snyder

Dire financial straights lead two women down a crooked path


Written and directed by Courtney Hunt

Angelika Film Center

18 W. Houston Street

(212) 995-2000; angelikafilmcenter.com


For writer and director Courtney Hunt, being awarded the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival last January came as both a blessing and something of a short-lived curse. Taking the stage to accept the award for her first feature, “Frozen River,” she was heralded as perhaps one of the next great New York filmmakers.

“At first, there were these really high expectations, and it’s daunting. When a film gets too much praise, it can kind of work against the material in a way,” Hunt said a few weeks back, talking on the phone from her home in upstate New York. “You start realizing that these audiences are coming to see the movie that ‘won Sundance,’ and already, there’s a set of expectations you have to meet.”

While some movies arrive at Sundance determined to stand out as those made by daredevil filmmakers hoping to reshape the way audiences think about stories, characters or structure, Hunt’s film is more of a straight shooter. It’s a story about two isolated, financially desperate women—Ray and Lila—living in an upstate community.

Ray (Melissa Leo) is too driven by survival instincts to succumb to her fraught situation. A wife and mother, Ray has been abandoned by a husband who’s taken off with the money she needs to make the final payment on a mobile home, scheduled to be delivered via semi in just a few days. Strapped for cash, she’s struggling to maintain a sense of confidence for her baby, and committed to finding the funds she needs to begin a better life.

Lila (Misty Upham), a Native American living on a Mohawk reservation, is also a single mother who says little but acts decisively. In a bid to make money herself, she has resorted to breaking the law, running illegal immigrants from Canada to her Mohawk reservation via the frozen St. Lawrence River. The elders in her community learn of her illegal activities and take away her car. So when Lila meets Ray, it seems like a natural fit: a smuggler without a car pairing up with an automobile-owning woman as desperate for cash as she is.

Back and forth they go across the ice, making the extraordinarily dangerous trip, risking everything in the process. Though the movie makes a few daring decisions—wading into the thorny and timely issue of illegal immigration and going to great lengths to focus on two female protagonists—“Frozen River” is really a straightforward character study and immigration thriller. It offers a roller-coaster ride of emotions born out of empty wallets, broken laws and bad luck.

“At first, I wanted the movie to get right out there, into theaters, but it’s been nice as audiences have forgotten about Sundance and have again started taking the film for what it is,” Hunt said. “Now, as we get ready to finally open in New York, we’re back to a place where people are coming to see the movie not because it’s a big Sundance title, but because there’s been such positive word of mouth. It’s more of an organic way of drawing in audiences, more of a viewer-to-viewer sort of way that lets a film stand on its own two feet.”

Her excitement for the movie’s hometown debut is hardly surprising. Hunt’s New York roots go deep. Studying film at Columbia University, and attracted the attention of audiences with a short film at the New York Film Festival that essentially told the same story as “Frozen River,” and starred the same talent. Even as she has toured the festival circuit, her name becoming more familiar among those in the industry, she has remained committed to living in her small, upstate, Columbia County community, where many of her neighbors remain unaware of how profoundly her life has changed.

“It’s really so sweet, because they have no idea. I’ll have neighbors and people in town who will come up individually and apologize about why they weren’t able to make a screening—that their dog had a tick and they had to take them to a vet,” Hunt said. “There’s some sense among some people, they seem to know ‘Wow, she must really be getting big,’ but there’s also a lot of people who just have no idea. Then again, the police haven’t stopped me for months, which is great.”

It was the moment when she saw the first official “Frozen River” poster that Hunt said the whirlwind adventure of the past year finally started to sink in. Today, those same posters can be found across New York City, touting the movie’s premiere at the Angelika Film Center last week.

While Hunt has maintained her upstate residence, avoiding the path followed by so many Sundance sensations in immediately uprooting their lives and trying to integrate themselves into the Hollywood circuit, Hunt has found her rhythm in focusing on her writing and developing the next script that she envisions attracting the attention of a major studio.

The location for that next script? Unsurprisingly, it’s New York—the East Village, to be exact, where she lived for a time. Once again based around the issue of immigration, but this time taking on the added challenges of a period piece, Hunt plans to tell the story of turn-of-the-century East Village tenements, and the immigrants who called those cramped quarters home. In a movie industry that prefers comic book blockbusters and silly works of escapism, such a weighty project might prove to be a hard sell. But given the overwhelming success she has found with only her first, independently financed project, Hunt has already proven she has what it takes to get the job done.