BREAKING THROUGH

The Baltimore Sun

Buzz" has become the byword for the combination of reviews, gossip and publicity that may win the attention of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. But the fun and significance of Oscar can go way deeper than buzz, into a magic quality we'll call "mojo" - a blend of filmmaking zest and originality, uncanny timing and tumultuous audience response that can drive "little movies that could" as well as big-studio blockbusters into moviegoers' bloodstreams.

Slumdog Millionaire has mojo to the max. But so does a much smaller independent film named Frozen River, which has garnered a best actress nomination for Melissa Leo and a best original script nod for first-time writer-director Courtney Hunt. It's bleaker than Slumdog, and it lacks that movie's romance and its great pop game-show gimmick. But it, too, connects viscerally to everyone's fears and hopes about penury, need, fate and opportunity.

Long admired by her peers and a loyal cult (developed in five years on the Baltimore-set crime series, Homicide: Life on the Street), Leo has never carried a major film before or garnered big awards. She has done it here with Hunt, the kind of tough, individualistic talent Leo has connected with throughout her quarter-century career. Leo and Hunt have earned their Oscar nominations because they bring fierce emotion and classical storytelling to subjects rarely treated effectively or at all in American entertainment.

"We just jumped off the cliff together," Hunt says of the partnership. "She was taking a chance on me, and I had to stake everything on her." Even now, Hunt confesses that when she tells people her actress has been nominated, and they respond blankly, the director says of Leo, "She's the one you don't know yet - but you will in two weeks."

Frozen River is a Sundance film with the glow still on it. When it came to Hunt preserving her vision and Leo practicing her art, they did everything right: They pulled off an unconventional suspense film with a confidence that bodes well for their futures.

"I had no prior feature-film connections," Hunt says. "We started with a script, and we turned it into a film. ... And [we] hoped really hard that the story we had crafted would get across to people."

Get across it did (and does): It won the Grand Jury Prize in Sundance's Dramatic Competition, and juror Quentin Tarantino said that it held his heart "in a vise."

Generally, the convergence of Sundance and Hollywood hasn't worked out as expected. Just a decade ago, independent directors such as Steven Soderbergh (Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich) and David O. Russell (Three Kings) brought individual sensibilities to mainstream movies and opened them up to grittier realities and keener humor. Soderbergh, for example, has alternated between big-audience films of no particular character (the Oceans series) and experimental films that few people want to see (Solaris), while Russell has drifted deeper into idiosyncrasy (I (heart) Huckabees).

The success of films like Frozen River may point to a third way.

Hunt found the germ of Frozen River in the set-up: Some Mohawk Indians were smuggling cigarettes into the United States from Canada across the winter ice. Then, as Hunt says, she "let the story grow organically out of a situation that really existed." The script took on form and flavor as she marinated herself in the milieu and grasped the parameters of her people's lives. "People in that part of upstate New York are poor and have been for a long time. And they live in two very separate worlds: There is a white culture and a Native American culture."

Conventional wisdom once dictated that Oscar ushered risk-taking talents into a more white-bread mainstream. But Hunt and Leo contend that their Oscar success proves the mainstream now contains many different estuaries. Hunt feels the multiculturalism behind Frozen River strikes a chord because it isn't forced. And this tyro auteur was never tempted to inflate the reluctant quasi-heroism of her central character - though a little more sentimentality might have attracted a big star and made the movie a lot easier to sell.

Hunt says she wasn't intent on creating what she calls "a star-driven indie." She simply wanted to make the best movie she could on the budget she had, and Leo was "perfect for this role."

Leo says it's inevitable that film production will fan out to all 50 states. She hopes that states like Maryland will embrace the future by increasing film production incentives.

To Leo, "The center of the mainstream right now may be your computer screen," and with the increasing use of new technology, "We should all be able to get paid, working locally, and be seen around the world. In its own way, Frozen River is proof of that."

An actor who never stops working, whether on shorts or television or workshops or features, Leo says Frozen River fit her credo of acting for the joy of it and the ecstasy of interacting with fellow talents and real people on actual locations.

"I didn't plan a career, but my career showed me what I wanted to do," Leo says. "My own story is about enjoying and celebrating the vast array of people and locations" behind a list of credits.

She recognized Hunt as a "truth-teller" from the script, and knew the hands-across-the-rez friendship between Ray and the Mohawk Lila, which begins in gunfire and culminates in self-sacrifice, would broaden audiences' minds in a ruggedly empathetic manner.

In separate interviews, Hunt and Leo recall that male marketers often tried to sell the film as if it were an East Coast Thelma and Louise. But Hunt abhors any attempt "to define a film in terms of another film, though in Hollywood they do that all the time." Leo says she realized from the start that the film's appeal lay in the way "it makes everyone think of their mother and everything she's done for them," even if she's someone society labels "trailer trash" or thinks of as no-account and stupid.

Hunt didn't want "some classic buddy movie." She wanted to "follow the reality, more like a documentary, where we just skate very close to the truth all the time." At the same time, like any fiction writer, "I let the characters write it for me." Frozen River bubbled to the surface when Hunt, who was in a poetry-writing phase, wrote it as an interior monologue "and the whole voice of Ray Eddy came pouring out." But she knew her success depended on her lead actor "bringing Ray Eddy to life."

Leo puts one of the movie's morals this way: "Don't immediately detest the woman living down the road from you just because you don't know what kind of thing she cooks in her oven. She might save your life one day." To Leo, Ray, though bigoted, overflows with "grandeur," because she'll do anything to improve her family's home life, including shoot a bullet into Lila's trailer door and smuggle illegal immigrants across the Mohawk reservation that spans New York and Canada via the frozen St. Lawrence River.

Leo looks forward to "keeping working and pushing my envelope and having a little bit of latitude" when it comes to choosing future roles.

As for Hunt, she loves the way the Oscars have made her feel part of a peer group that includes the writers of Milk and Wall-E. She appreciates the nomination for increasing her opportunities to do different kinds of films as well as making it more likely for her to launch personal projects.

And even if she doesn't win this time, now she knows that she can compete at the highest levels of American moviemaking.

"It may be a long shot," Hunt says, "but if you really do a good story and have it acted well, you can be considered in this arena."

All it takes is a lot of talent and a dollop of mojo.

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