River of Return 

Memphis-born filmmaker Courtney Hunt talks about her Sundance-winning debut.

The Sundance-winning Frozen River is a singular film. It takes place at one spot and time in the world: in the present day on the St. Regis Mohawk tribal land in upstate New York — a reservation that encompasses territory on both sides of the St. Lawrence River, in the U.S. and Canada.

Every winter, when the river freezes over, a brisk smuggling trade comes out of hibernation. Illegal immigrants, cigarettes, drugs, you name it: It all comes over the river, transported in cars driven across the ice by Mohawk women. American and Canadian police officials can't do much to stop it either, because the Mohawk nation is autonomous and free from federal control.

Frozen River is based on this crossroads between three countries, with their imaginary borders and very real disputes, the river that runs through it, and the women who try to keep from drowning under it all.

Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) is a white woman on the New York side. She asks for just a little slice of the American Dream: a new doublewide trailer. But her husband has stolen the payment on it the morning it's being delivered, and he runs out on Ray and her two sons, 15-year-old T.J. (Charlie McDermott) and 5-year-old Ricky (James Reilly). To make matters worse, it's Christmastime, and Ray doesn't have anything to put under the tree. She's not getting enough hours at Yankee Dollar Store.

While trying to track down her husband, Ray encounters Lila (Misty Upham), a Mohawk woman who's not doing so well herself. Lila lives in a tiny trailer on the rez, and, though she makes a little money smuggling, she's saving it all for her 1-year-old son, who was kidnapped by her mother-in-law.

Their backs against the wall, Ray and Lila begin an uneasy partnership. Ray helps bring a carload of foreigners over the river. It's nerve-wracking, but it seems easy enough the first time. And it pays.

Frozen River is full of observations of those who are living less than paycheck to paycheck: digging through the couch for lunch money for the kids; buying exactly as much gas as you have change in your pocket; popcorn and Tang for dinner. The American Dream is sought after by the dispossessed, the repossessed, and the pissed off. It makes you wonder if it's worth chasing at all. And yet, the film doesn't descend into the depressing. Though times are tough, these characters are strong, engaging, and willing to fight.

Leo and Upham's chemistry is magnetic but not overplayed — the two will get nominations and more come award season if there's any justice. The film is full of indelible images and moments of surprise and humor, and the culture clashes are intensely realistic.

click to enlarge Melissa Leo and Misty Upham
  • Melissa Leo and Misty Upham

Frozen River is a noirish, western, indie-drama character study. Like I said, it's singular.

It also premieres in Memphis this week, marking a bit of a homecoming for writer-director Courtney Hunt, who was born in Memphis and lived here until age 13.

The film is the debut feature from Hunt, who has a law degree from Northeastern University and an MFA from Columbia University, where she studied under filmmaker, critic, and Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader. Frozen River won the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

Hunt recently took a few questions from the Flyer in advance of the film's Memphis premiere:

Flyer: Was filmmaking something you've always wanted to do?

Hunt: Yes. My very first art-house movie was at the Memphian theater [the current location of Playhouse on the Square]. My mother would take me to see everything. I remember when I saw The Way We Were — arguably inappropriate for an 8-year-old. She thought I should be able to see good films. That's how my love of movies got started, which is why I'm so excited to come to Memphis.

Was the genesis of Frozen River hearing about the smuggling trade?

Yes. My husband is from a town about 10 miles from the Canadian border. I met some women who were smugglers. They were running cigarettes, and they just ran it as a business. They didn't think anything of it. I heard that they had switched over to illegal immigrants after 9/11, and that to me became very interesting.

Did you ever go on one of those runs yourself?

No, because every time I'd be up there, my husband would say, "Don't you go on a smuggling run!" But I did drive across the river with a Mohawk, just to drive across. It's exhilarating.

So much of what defines Frozen River is its atmosphere.

The way it looks up there — that open, desolate landscape in blues and grays — is what it looks like in the winter. We just turned on the camera. Coming from West Tennessee, I always loved that flat landscape with a big wide river. It's a powerful image for me. You add on to this the sight of that river frozen and a car driving across it, and that was the central visual image for the movie.

First-time filmmakers often make work that is in some way autobiographical. Are you anywhere in these characters that you created?

I would say that I am probably in all of the characters, but most of all I am probably in T.J. I think he feels burdened beyond his years — which I did.

Even though my mother was working her heart out and my dad was in the picture as somebody I saw regularly, it was still that feeling of, Is my mother going to be able to pull this off? I think kids of single mothers often ask that question.

What's next on the slate?

I have a period piece that I just finished and I'm beginning to shop. It takes place in 1904 on the Lower East Side of New York City, about the melting pot before it melted.

Any chance you'll make a movie in Memphis called Muddy River? Part of a trilogy?

[Laughs] It's funny you should ask. I do have a third film I've outlined but not written, which does take place in West Tennessee and it does involve my family, but I can't really say anything else about it.

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