By Jeremy Evans

Another celebration of extraordinary independent films is about to begin in Bay City as the fourth annual Hell’s Half Mile Film and Music Festival prepares for its launch Thursday. And few films arrive with as much buzz as Maria My Love, the festival’s opening film.

Fresh off a premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival (where star Judy Marte was named “Favorite Talent” by Anthem magazine) and a big win at HBO’s New York International Latino Film Festival, Maria My Love has been garnering praise from major outlets like Film Comment and the Wall Street Journal all year. Now film lovers in Mid-Michigan can experience this sensitive drama themselves.

Set in Southern California, Maria My Love tells the story of a young woman named Ana (Marte) struggling to come to terms with her mother’s sudden death. Seeking solace by re-connecting with a half-sister, Grace (Lauren Fales), and beginning a new romance, Ana eventually embarks on a quest to find someone she can help, in any way possible. The person she finds is Maria (Karen Black), a hoarder whose fraught emotional state draws Ana into a much more emotionally complicated situation than she anticipated.

First-time writer director Jasmine McGlade Chazelle conceived the film just over two years ago, when she bumped into old friend Fales. As the two caught up over dinner, Fales described the emotional journey she had been on for several years, recovering after losing her mother to cancer. Fales’s story so inspired Chazelle, she says, she knew she had to adapt it into a film. The passion for this story brought the film together quickly.

“I was eager to make my first film as a director after years of producing,” said Chazelle. “I set a goal to make it quickly and just did what was necessary to make that happen. We made it happen because our team was so flexible, resilient, and willing to give themselves for very little or in some cases nothing.”

Certainly the name most familiar to movie fans in this production is that of screen legend Karen Black, two-time Golden Globe winner (Five Easy Pieces, The Great Gatsby) and Oscar nominee. Chazelle says getting Black for the role of Maria was a dream come true.

“I knew I needed someone willing to give themselves and get their hands dirty since our film was so low budget, and Karen was that person,”said Chazelle. “Karen is such a force of life—she never stops working. She is so astute, quirky, and perceptive. Those are incredible skills to have as an actor, and I definitely tried to give her opportunities to allow Karen Black, and not just the character of Maria, to show up on screen.”

The core of the film, though, belongs to Judy Marte, around whose emotional journey the film revolves. Chazelle describes casting Marte, a two-time Independent Spirit award nominee (Raising Victor Vargas, On the Outs), as another great strength of the film.

“I had met her a year before I even wrote Maria My Love,”said Chazelle. “When it was time to cast I asked her and, luckily for me, she said ‘Yes.’ I was most drawn to Judy’s naturalism, her serious nature, her amazing instincts as an actress, and her capabilities at improvisation.”

Maria My Love is also something of a rarity in the film world in that it is nearly an all-woman production; most major cast and crew roles, including direction, production, writing, and editing, are occupied by women. When asked if this circumstance had informed the tone or the spirit of the film in any definable way, Chazelle offered a few thoughts.

“I feel lucky to have worked with a nearly all woman team,” she said. “I definitely love that there was a strong female force on this project. I definitely think it’s rare to have so much female presence on a film set; however, it shouldn’t be.”

Maria My Love screens at the State Theatre, Thursday, September 29 at 8:15 p.m. and Sunday, October 2 at 2:00 p.m.

© Jeremy Evans, 2011