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The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio
A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this movie includes several tense family scenes, specifically when the father is inebriated and the mother must smooth over his anger and ugliness in front of their children. At one point, furious that a son has had a car accident, the father starts hitting and chasing him through the house; and in an especially disturbing scene, following a brief struggle, the mother falls on glass milk bottles she's carrying, spilling milk and her blood (from the broken glass) all over the floor, as children look on and cry. The kids reveal their own fears and resentment, fretting that Mom will leave even for a day, and once singing a version of "Row your boat" where they imagine throwing Dad overboard "just to hear him scream."
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What's the story?
THE PRIZE WINNER OF DEFIANCE, OHIO tells the story of remarkable '50s housewife, Evelyn Ryan (Julianne Moore). (It's based on a book by one of Ryan's real-life daughters, Terry.) Evelyn's 10 kids and machinist husband Kelly (Woody Harrelson), depend on her as their rock. She also pursues her own interests by writing ad copy, or jingles, for various products. She wins enough prizes to help support the family, as Kelly slips into depression and alcoholism. Evelyn rarely reveals the toll Kelly's problems take on her, and then, usually, to instruct her children in the value of optimism. But Evelyn's pain is explicitly and bizarrely exposed when, while arguing with Kelly, she falls and is injured. Kelly apologizes for his oafishness, again. "I just want to make you happy," he moans. She schools him: "I don't need you to make me happy. I just need you to leave me alone when I am." Kelly can't comprehend the devastation that impels this request, as the movie posits him as just too dumb to "get" her. But you're left with another sense of Evelyn altogether, one who is independent and fierce, sustained below the surface of her functions as durable housewife and loving mom.
Is it any good?
Jane Anderson's film is a doting, adorable, and sometimes disturbing portrait of Evelyn. As Evelyn both supports and exploits an expanding commercial culture through her "contesting," the film doesn't quite challenge the surface she's perpetuating. But it does illustrate it in some detail, including an animated montage that accompanies her listing of prizes (a palm tree, a lifetime supply of birdseed, clothing, and a pony), and the Affadaisies, a coterie of other contesters organized by Dortha (Laura Dern). One member is an always beaming lady in an iron lung that's painted happy-yellow (such irony, while perverse, gives the movie a brief, welcome edge).