PARK CITY, Utah - A film interweaving the issues of Indian sovereignty, racial bias, and the harsh reality of American poverty into an action-packed thriller that expresses the transcendent power of family, love and friendship has earned the top prize at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival.
''Frozen River,'' writer/director Courtney Hunt's first full length drama, won the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic Feature Jan. 26, the final wrap-up of the annual 10-day independent film festival in the Utah mountains.
The story involves a poverty-stricken white woman, played by Melissa Leo, and a young Mohawk woman, portrayed by Misty Upham, Blackfeet, who earn money smuggling undocumented immigrants across the frozen St. Lawrence River from Canada into the United States.
The film, which had its world premiere at Sundance, garnered universal praise from ordinary film goers, film professionals and, ultimately, from the panel of judges who awarded the prize, including veteran director and jury member Quentin Tarantino, who praised the film lavishly.
''It doesn't look like a movie, doesn't feel like a movie; it's a wonderful depiction of poverty in America that took my breath away,'' Tarantino said. ''And then somewhere around the last hour it put my heart in a vice and proceeded to twist that vice until the last frame. And all of a sudden this completely naturalistic movie was one of the most exciting thrillers I'm going to see this year.''
Hunt, who holds a Master of Fine Arts from Columbia University Film Division, developed ''Frozen River'' from a short film of the same title that premiered in the New York Film Festival in 2004. She told Indian Country Today that she was thrilled by the response to the film.
''It's pretty wonderful. I'd never seen it with more than five people in the room before the premiere, so that was a bit of a nail biter, and I couldn't believe it. It's a very receptive audience, but they really liked it. They rode the emotional ups and downs. There was laughter and there were tears, but I think there's a sense of people traveling with these two women in the same car. We're all in there together and that's kind of wonderful,'' Hunt said.
While the acting is brilliant, the story alone is compelling. Ray Eddy, played by Leo, is the white trailer mom who lives near the Mohawk reservation on the New York side of the St. Lawrence River. Just before Christmas, Eddy's husband abandons her and their 15-year-old and five-year-old sons, taking off with the $4,000-plus balloon payment for the family's new three-bedroom doublewide home. Eddy works for an exploitive ''Dollar Value'' store owner who pays so little she is forced to feed her children popcorn and Tang for dinner.
Eddy hooks up with Upham's character, Lila Littlewolf, a tough-on-the-outside, hurting-on-the-inside young Mohawk woman, who lives in a camper on the reservation. The two women enter into an uneasy, distrustful relationship of convenience, making runs across the St. Lawrence River and bringing back illegal Chinese and Pakistani immigrants in the trunk of Eddy's Dodge Spirit.
Littlewolf tells Eddy contemptuously that she doesn't ''normally work with whites.'' But she's been shunned by the tribe for smuggling and no one will sell her a car, and Eddy's Dodge has the pop-open trunk of choice for smugglers.
Eddy at first balks at bringing illegal immigrants across the border. ''There is no border; it's all Mohawk land,'' Littlewolf says. Eddy snaps back that it's all America, but she is desperate for money and the $1,200-a-head per smuggled immigrant is irresistible.
Littlewolf wants her baby son back from her mother-in-law who has ''stolen'' him after Littlewolf's husband fell into the ice and drowned on a smuggling run, but she feels trapped in her present situation. In her moment of epiphany, Littlewolf is able to see, both literally and metaphorically, what she needs to do.
The two women make several smuggling runs, but soon run into a cascading series of potential disasters and appear bound for tragedy. But, faced with the consequences of their actions, the women make choices that ultimately prove the strength of our common humanity.
Hunt said she learned about Mohawk culture with the help of an Akwesasne medicine woman while exploring rumors of cigarette smuggling. She also met some real-life smugglers.
''I learned that women often did it, so I started with that and it became more and more interesting to me why women did it, why Mohawk women got involved, why women with children would be bold enough to drive across a mile-wide frozen river. I thought the adventure of that was as good as any adventure out there,'' Hunt said.
The issues of tribal sovereignty, race and hostility are revealed naturalistically through the characters' relationships.
''That was one reason I chose Ray, who knows nothing about Indians. This is typical of upstate New York. People live right next door to the reservation and know nothing about it and don't know Natives, and there's very little interaction. I think that's true of most Americans,'' Hunt said.
''So I thought to take it through the eyes of somebody who lives right up there and knows nothing about the Indians and what she does know, she's suspicious of, a typical kind of narrow-mindedness. I thought the departure of the story was to do that and have us learn it as she learns it in the way she learns it through what people say and do,'' Hunt said.
The acting experience was intense.
''I think a lot of the emotion [in Littlewolf's character] was just coming from me,'' Upham said. ''I shaved my head for the role and gained 60 pounds. It was hard for me to change my appearance. I used to be skinny and have long hair and I tried to be perfect, but I had to do it to really get into this role and make it as rugged as we wanted it to be.'' Upham's biography and credits are available at www.officialmistyupham.com.
Dylan Carusona, Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, who played a Mohawk smuggler, said he knew the role was right from his first reading of the script.
''It was so good. It kept pulling me in. It was an amazing experience to be involved with such a well-written script. And the characters were so real and the portrayal was even more realistic, so I just feel honored to be a part of it. '' Carsusona's biography and credits are available at www.amerinda.org/naar/carusona/actor/actor.htm.
Two days before the Sundance award, Sony Pictures Classics purchased ''Frozen River,'' guaranteeing its wide distribution.
''I want it to walk as far as it can walk and if it's into the malls that would be nice. I hope everyone who wants to see it gets to see it. And if it were to go to television, well, so be it,'' Hunt said.