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The rigors of law school convinced Courtney Hunt that a legal career was not for her, so she returned to her first love, the cinema, and became a fiercely independent writer and director. Her debut feature, "Frozen River" (2008), took an unflinching look at the circumstances that drive two women - one white (Melissa Leo), one Native American (Misty Upham) - to risk their lives by smuggling illegal immigrants across the Canadian border. The self-financed project was the hit of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, and reaped critical accolades following its release to arthouse theaters later that year. Hunt's insistence on hard realism and biting drama helped to elevate her from relative unknown to an in-demand filmmaker with a unique perspective on women in film.
Born in Memphis, TN in 1964, she was raised by her mother, who divorced her father when Hunt was three. Money was in short supply during her early years, and Hunt's mother turned to the movies for comfort and entertainment. Hunt absorbed the character-driven dramas of the early 1970s, especially Martin Scorsese's "Alice Doesn't Live Here Any More" (1974); its story of a single mother struggling to live her life while supporting her children had a particular resonance with Hunt's own day-to-day existence. Eventually, Hunt's mother's hard work paid off with acceptance into law school. When Hunt herself came of college age, she followed in her mother's footsteps, but discovered only a few months later that the law was not where her heart lay.
She gained acceptance into Columbia Film School, where her thesis film, "Althea Faught" (1994), won numerous awards and screened at countless festivals before airing on PBS as part of "American Playhouse" (1982-2002) in 1996. After graduating with an MFA from Columbia in 1994, Hunt began work on her first feature film. The initial inspiration for "Frozen River" came from a poem she wrote, as well as an image of women driving across an icy wasteland, and a full decade of research into the lives of the Mohawk people who live along the Canadian border. The mix of influences eventually gelled in a short film that served as an early draft of "Frozen River." Positive response to the short from a screening at the New York Film Festival in 2004 convinced Hunt to expand it into a feature, which was funded entirely by investments from business associates of Hunt's husband, Donald Harwood. Actresses Melissa Leo and Misty Upham were brought on board to play the film's central characters - a pair of single mothers who risk run-ins with the law and even their own lives in order to support their families.
Response to the film from critical circles was overwhelming. Director Quentin Tarantino, who described the film's moments of tension as akin to putting his "heart in a vise," was an early champion and was instrumental in awarding "Frozen River" the Grand Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Hunt found herself on the receiving end of numerous accolades and nominations, including Independent Spirit Award nominations for Best Director and Best First Screenplay; other trophies included the NBR Award from the National Board of Review and nominations from countless state and international critic societies.
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