Little Miss Darkness

Photo: Chris Buck

The fortysomething, out-of-the-culture-loop moms who left their fabulous lives in New York City to raise their kids in Columbia County were buzzing. Courtney Hunt, one of our own, denizen of the local diner, had directed a film, Frozen River, that was accepted into Sundance. Then in late January a thrill spread through the county: She’d won the Grand Jury Prize for drama.

Hunt left Sundance riding a wave of acclaim. Quentin Tarantino, the festival juror who handed out the prize, said that the film, about a poverty-stricken upstate mom who teams with a Native American woman to smuggle illegal immigrants across the U.S.-Canada border, “put my heart in a vise and proceeded to twist that vise until the last frame.” Sony Pictures Classics bought the distribution rights, with a release date scheduled for August. Three weeks later, Frozen River was chosen to open this week’s New Directors/New Films festival at MoMA and Lincoln Center. Apparently, we’d manufactured our own Orson Welles.

Bursting with local pride, I ride the train to New York City for a screening, but my enthusiasm tapers somewhat after I speak with my city friends. One journalist tells me she skipped Frozen River at Sundance. “If I’d described it to my editor, she would have gone into a coma,” she explains. My screening date reads Hunt’s bio in the production notes, which leads with her M.F.A. thesis film, Althea Faught, a Civil War drama. “Bad sign,” he says, as the theater lights go down.

Frozen River opens with a long, slow close-up of actress Melissa Leo (21 Grams). Her character, Ray Eddy, a dollar-store clerk, has just discovered that her derelict gambler of a husband has taken off with the down payment for their double-wide. The camera pans up her body and lingers on her face. Every crease is visible; the eyelids are red, the mouth dry and drawn. I realize with horror that Leo isn’t wearing any makeup. She looks haggard, like the women I see at my dollar store. Her desolate, snow-covered yard evokes the view out my window. The sky is an all-too-familiar, relentless winter gray. Events don’t exactly veer into the hunky-dory over the rest of the movie: brushes with the law, racial profiling, and children without Christmas presents. As the two women stagger through the film without a lifeline, I can’t wait to get that vise off.

I had expected something different from Sundance-blessed indie cinema, but Hunt’s film is as disconnected from the warm-fuzzy quirks and geek-cool affirmations of Juno and Little Miss Sunshine as it is from Hollywood at large. When I meet Hunt the following week, she admits as much. “It’s hard to watch,” she says cheerfully.

We’re at a coffee shop on the poky little Main Street of Valatie, New York, halfway between her house and mine. Hunt was in the city the previous day for a photo shoot, and she wears the remnants—the cakey orange glow of yesterday’s makeup—the way a vacationer returning from the Bahamas sports a winter tan. She finds the process excruciating. “There’s this focus on you, and you feel really scrutinized and weird,” she says. “And less attractive than ever, as they continue to pile this crap on your face.”

Hunt’s on a bit of a crusade when it comes to makeup, and more generally, most movie depictions of working-class women. “People are so jaded at this point by seeing only beautiful, big, toothy smiles,” she says. “Even if the characters are dirt-poor and desperate, they’re gorgeous. I guess I’ll be struck dead for saying this, but I didn’t like Erin Brockovich. I feel like we don’t have to seduce everybody every moment.”

Hunt has another bone to pick with Hollywood about depictions of violence. “I don’t like big, huge violence,” she says. “I find it hard to believe. It’s all choreographed. Real violence is small. It’s messy and inaccurate. People try to shoot somebody and wind up shooting their own ear off.” When the director staged a fight between Ray and her Native American smuggling partner, Lila (played by newcomer Misty Upham), she let it happen in a spastic, awkwardly angled way. “Lila whacks Ray in the head, and Ray’s head is bleeding, and she’s like, ‘Bitch!’ That’s what fighting is, in my mind.”

Hunt, 43, grew up in Memphis and Nashville, raised by a mother who was married at 18 and divorced when Courtney was 3. Isolated and struggling, her mom took refuge in film. “I saw Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore when I was 11,” Hunt says. “I related to everything in that movie. I was living with a single mother, she was making it the best way she could. It was not pretty; she’d have boyfriends, and maybe they’d be nice and maybe they wouldn’t.” Her mom eventually worked her way through law school, and after college, Hunt followed her path, despite realizing only a couple of months in that a law career wasn’t for her.

Misty Upham and Melissa Lo in Courtney Hunt's Frozen River. Photo: Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Hunt eventually graduated from Columbia’s film school, in 1994, and soon after began the laborious process of developing Frozen River. She spent ten years researching the Mohawk tribe near the Canadian border, befriending a medicine woman and slowly gaining the insular community’s trust. “It took me a long time to feel like I understood enough about that life to make a credible character,” she says.

Hunt wrote Frozen River first as a short, which made it into the 2004 New York Film Festival. Her husband, Donald Harwood, raised less than $1 million from business associates to make the feature. “We had nobody interfering,” Hunt says. “We had no, ‘Geez, the actress really doesn’t want to wear that color.’ In a way we had this wonderful, chaste experience. It was desperate, but it was pure.”

And that’s when I get it. Hunt had left the city, dropped out of the loop, in order to create that space where something pure could happen. It’s taken her a while, but she’s pulled it off. She’s tapped into upstate’s alternate reality, and while it may be harsher and less pretty than I expected, it is, on some level, what all of us came looking for. Suddenly she’s my hero.

Then I panic. What if her aesthetic becomes more polished? What if she goes Hollywood? “I’m not going to catch you directing Charlie’s Angels 10 someday, am I?” I ask.

She cracks up. “No, no, no,” she says. “I’m too old. My personality’s largely formed at this point. I’m pretty much cooked.”

Little Miss Darkness