I went in with a certain trepidation. Would this be the typical Hollywood feel-good sappy, the predictable tearjerker for a women's audience?
I had read the book, met the author, Terry Ryan, whose shy charm and sense of humor had instantly convinced me of her truthfulness. This is the kind of daughter, I thought, who comes from a mother of true grit and brilliance. With "25 words or less", this woman managed to beat out the competition of up to 250 000 other housewives and mothers busily penning slogans, jingles and funny songs about toothpaste or washing powder during the advertising contest craze of the fifties and early sixties. Naturally, if you are one of her ten kids and have survived the daily disaster of a drunken raging father thanks to the verbal (and other) miracles created by such a mother, you will write about her as if she were a fairy out of a fairytale.
The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio is a daughter's homage, and it rings true even if one has to imagine the much darker shadows in corners that were left untouched. The film pays its own homage to the daughter when Terry Ryan appears onscreen at the end to receive her mother's old typewriter as her inheritance. You can tell from this brief appearance how much she has indeed inherited from her mother.
The perilous move from bestseller to Hollywood movie was an obvious step after all, this is a story of an underdog who wins out against all odds, the kind of story audiences tend to love best. But the insatiable movie machine could easily have dumbed down the extraordinary mother for mass identification, or over-sized her for sugarcoated family-values pontification. Choosing Julienne Moore to play another fifties housewife and mother could have seemed oddly calculated. Watching two casts of ten kids each grow up among different neighbors over some ten years might have made it hard to detect anything but the blur of a crowd. The dangers were innumerable.
I came out converted. Prize Winner is indeed a winner. Scriptwriter and director Jane Anderson (who made a daring 2003 TV movie, "Normal", about a husband turning transsexual) did a terrific job making the fairytale about the remarkable Evelyn Ryan engaging and "real" enough. There is the unavoidable repetitiveness of constant disasters followed by prize victories, but Anderson breaks them up with fast-forward animation and comic devices like having Julianne Moore reciting jingles directly to the camera and promptly handing her apron-clad double at the kitchen table another blender or toaster she has just won. The director invents a hilarious visual display of all the kitchen gadgets, toys and palm trees, bicycles and romantic trips for two that this mother of ten has won and sold in order to keep the family afloat. There are many charged and bitter-sweet moments, as when a spiffy Triumph lands in front of the family's simple house and the mother refuses to learn to drive it because that would make selling the car too hard to bear. In the absence of a truly dramatic arc, the film relies on the marvel of great acting in order to sustain emotional intensity, and achieves a poignant crescendo at the end.
Julianne Moore is different here than in her previous housewife roles (The Hours and Far From Heaven). She is luminous in her warm-hearted, sometimes childlike life joy and understated in her heroism. In fact, underneath her cheerful optimism, she makes us feel the steely determination not ever to be provoked by the despair, humiliation, shame and rage her wreck of a husband triggers. These feelings clearly show, however, in the pained faces and cowering attitudes of the children and (later) teenagers. The kids perfectly convey the paralysis that grips them whenever father's violence threatens. Like shipwrecked souls they cling to the one solid hold they have: their mother's unflappable refusal to loose it. Only little tomboy Terry, alias "Tuff," spits out the truth about dad every now and then, and the film very organically develops her character out of the bunch of kids into the third protagonist. Ellary Porterfield (a young actress from Oregon who made her first mark on TV with Stuck in the Middle With You) in the role of teenage Terry ("Tuff") Ryan holds the screen next to Moore with impressive acting. She is the intelligent, sensitive witness who battles with the temptation to hate, and learns from her mother to try and stretch herself beyond the simplification of black and white.
It is no secret that Julianne Moore is an extraordinary actress, but it is a marvel time and again to see her at work. In the role of Evelyn Ryan we read in the mere expression of her eyes the process this "endangered" wife and mother goes through when the few dollars needed for milk have once again gone into booze; when she has to humiliate herself in front of the hostile milkman in order to get that milk for her kids; or when her husband attacks the big freezer she has won because he envies her success and doubly resents it because he would never be able to fill it with food. She seems to go inside to a place where she weighs her options and then chooses not to escalate the situation, not to pity herself and not to become a victim, but to embrace the crisis with intelligence to see how she can hold it or even turn it around or, with the very economy of patience and the bravery of goodwill, make the best of it at least for the moment. At least for the kids. .