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The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio Movie Poster

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio

Genre: Drama
Rated: PG-13
Directed by
: Jane Anderson
Starring: Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Trevor Morgan
Released by: Dreamworks Pictures

In Short: Julianne Moore is inspiring as a contest-winning mom who refuses to concede to life’s challenges.

In 25 Words or Less:
Optimism Conquers All

By Andrew Bender

On the one hand, Evelyn Ryan of Defiance, Ohio has everything one might aspire to as a 1950s homemaker: a husband whom she calls “Dad” while he calls her “Mother;” a busy, comfy home; white gloves to wear in public and ten kids who never seem to be at each others’ throats.

On the other hand, Evelyn’s life is rotten: her husband, Kelly (Woody Harrelson) is an alcoholic prone to rages, who pours away his meager earnings on liquor for himself instead of milk for the kids. Meanwhile, the priest advises her to grin and bear it…and then there are the ten kids.

As Evelyn, Julianne Moore grins and bears it beautifully and effectively. Her coping mechanism is “contesting” – entering competitions to compose advertising jingles and slogans for cash and prizes. Turns out she’s very good at it, winning everything from $3 to a car and all the appliances Kelly can’t provide her with. Her winning only exacerbates Kelly’s anger, yet it helps Evelyn to see the positive no matter how bad things get.

Writer/director Jane Anderson’s use of cutaway scenes, cartoonish effects and perky, plucky music keeps “the Prize Winner” milkshake-frothy. Yet Anderson doesn’t gloss over Evelyn’s hard knocks, such as a gross-out scene featuring a wardrobe malfunction with a diaper. Paradoxically, at other times Anderson’s storytelling is as cloying as a king-sized bowl of jell-o with extra marshmallows—the most egregious example shows Evelyn and kids merrily composing a jingle about a sandwich while a blotto Kelly makes up his own about how he’s a loser.

By 21st century standards, you’d probably say that Evelyn needs a hug or, better yet, an intervention followed by assertiveness training. It’s exasperating to watch her endure a marriage that these days would be considered abusive. In the end, though, it’s worth remembering that expectations were different then, and Evelyn’s ability to combine sweetness, steel and nobility is, ultimately, inspirational.

(Updated: 01/23/08 NJ)

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