The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio

I watched a movie the other night that was a little bit of a change of pace for me. No zombies, no ghosts, no exploding buildings or desperate FBI agents; not even a body. Instead there was an articulate woman, ten children and a destructive husband. The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio stars Julianne Moore as Evelyn Ryan, a woman whose husband (Woody Harrelson) habitually drinks up the paycheck, leaving her with no money to take care of the household essentials. Evelyn has a talent that's also a curse, she is extremely good at writing the kinds of catchy jingles and rhymes that win contests and she's able to consistently win enough to not just feed her children and give them bikes, but to actually put a down payment on a house. Unfortunately her husband is extremely resentful of her abilities and reacts accordingly. But somehow, despite the hardship and the grinding poverty, Evelyn nearly always manages to stay serene and bright, making this movie poignant and well worth watching.

The film is based on a memoir of the same name written by Evelyn's sixth child, Terry "Tuffy" Ryan. You can absolutely tell the film is based on real life because the family dynamics are so complicated and strange. During one scene where the drunken father is wrecking things and generally acting like a wounded bear, Evelyn runs into the living room and shoos all the children upstairs and out the door, out of harm's way. Anyone who grew up in an abusive family knows this is exactly how it works; with one member of the family shepherding the rest even when it puts that person at risk.

Evelyn may not have a master's degree but she deserves one in management for learning to manage Kelly, her bitter, alcoholic husband. The more she wins the angrier and more self-destructive he becomes, breaking the prizes and throwing them out the door. In one telling scene he has a fit because she's won all the groceries she can fit in a shopping cart in ten minutes and he reacts by throwing the food they couldn't possibly have afforded, lobster and crab, out the backdoor. Determined to let the rest of the family enjoy the exotic foods they've brought home Evelyn remains cheerful and firm, passing around the capers and caviar until she finally manages to coax Kelly into eating the shrimp cocktail she got especially for him. But all the while Kelly is hiding a secret that has the potential to tear the family apart and force the kids to live in separate houses if Evelyn can't pull off one last miracle.

In lesser hands the father would be portrayed as a selfish monster but with the deft touch of director/screenwriter Amy Anderson and the delicate acting chops of Woody Harrelson instead he comes across as someone who wants to connect with his family and can't quite manage it. You can see him wanting to be a better person but never quite making it.

Newcomer Ellary Porterfield is fabulous as young Tuffy Ryan, the child we get to know the most. She's resentful of her father and very supportive of her mother but confused by Evelyn's acceptance of the terrible hand fate has dealt her. Ms. Porterfield plays Tuffy at three different ages and does a terrific job at each.

Laura Dern is also lovely as the leader of a group of contest winning housewives who get together for friendship and support but it's Julianne Moore who really makes this film. At first glance she turns a serene mask to the world but then you see so many emotions going on under the surface. She gives a tremendous performance (Why no Oscar nomination?) and by the end of the film you'll wish she were your mother, telling you how special you are. Of course you'll also want to give Dad a punch in the face but that's one of life's little tradeoffs.

The film is out on DVD and you can watch the trailer here.

One-Paragraph Review

This week's one-paragraph review is from People May Lynch Me who has some comments about a very popular recent book release, saying, "This latest Potter novel feels more like the first and second did than any of the more recent ones, which is not a good thing. It feels more like a kid's story than ever, and also feels a little rushed, and the ending is immensely silly. However, it is still a Potter book, and worth reading, if only to finish off the series once and for all." Have you got a one-paragraph (or smaller) review you'd like to share? Send it in to me and I'll run the most interesting ones. You can reach me at feedback@qualitytimeweekly.com.