The
Film:
The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio  BUY IT

The Principals: Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern

The Premise:  The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio
is based on a true story of Evelyn Ryan who raised ten children with
prize money she won from entering multiple jingle contests for radio and
television that were popular in the 1950’s and 60’s. The story comes
from a novel titled The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less written by Terry Ryan (one of the girls from the actual family).


 

Super-mother
Evelyn Ryan does her best to keep a roof over her family’s heads and to
shelter her children from routine blowups by their father Kelly
(played  by Woody Harrelson.) Kelly is a fallen man who had at
one time had a promising career as a singer and lost it all in a severe
auto accident. He fights a losing battle to support his family on wages
from an unpromising factory job that doesn’t even bring in enough money
to pay the milk man. The man’s got drinking problems and his
self-loathing for his inability to support his family result in the very
things Evelyn wins or attempts to keep running being destroyed and
smashed.


The plot is endless wave after wave of financial disasters and resulting
stress and blow-ups that are saved at the last moment by a telegram or a

knock on the door with a prize delivery. One begins to love and hate
Evelyn Ryan’s perpetual smile because the film shows the cost at which
it is maintained for the children and public. The more successful she
becomes at writing jingles and winning, the more undermined Kelly feels
as head of the household. As Kelly slowly unravels, Evelyn does her best
to place her trust in “dad” in front of the children and do what it
takes to keep the kids off of the streets and in shoes that fit.



Is It Good:
  The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio

is heavily marketed as a feel-good movie in which “the power of a
winning spirit” triumphs over all. Yuck. What that pitch won’t tell you
is that the film offers substance above and beyond a film-induced
restoration of faith in humanity and swell of positive emotion. The hugs
and forced smiles from Moore’s character are as equally real as the
blood and spilled milk (literally) and decapitated tulips. It allows the
audience to feel uncomfortable and tense. It’s not a story of 1950’s
utopia. She talks back to her husband. The children are scared. Things
are broken irreparably. In other words, it feels authentic. It doesn’t
repeatedly harp on a single note.

Director
Jane Anderson plays with a lot of 1950’s motifs from advertising in a
very self-aware way. Between appearances of Julianne Moore doing walk-on
narration to tell the story (it works) and product images super-imposed
upon the action at times, it makes The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio a playful commentary of the times and critique of the very story the film is is telling.



Is It Worth A Look: 
If you’re a fan of Julianne Moore or Woody Harrelson, then by all means
you might very well enjoy them in this period piece. Julianne Moore
nails the role. I’d say that if you enjoyed her in The Hours, then you’d
enjoy her in this in much the same way. If you’re drawn toward dramas
or period movies set in the 50’s then this is highly
recommended for you, as it makes a mostly successful attempt at being
emotionally authentic (everything the 50’s wasn’t) through its
purposeful portrayal of tension and failure.
If anything, it’s just
damn good story telling that earns its emotional power rather than
relying on easy button-pushing. It’s entertaining, and I hate to
announce this to a cynical world, but it is actually inspiring.