D: Jane Anderson / 95m
Cast: Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, Trevor Morgan, Ellary Porterfield, Laura Dern, Simon Reynolds, Martin Doyle, David Gardner
In the Fifties, hard-working mother of twelve, Evelyn Ryan (Moore) is a champion contester, winning prizes ranging from a couple of dollars to bicycles to washing machines, and sometimes, larger cash prizes. But with her husband Kelly (Harrelson) drinking away his wages, these prizes often serve as ways to prevent or avoid financial hardship from overwhelming the family entirely.
Raising ten kids, Evelyn often has to find creative ways of managing their finances, and while some of her wins help keep things going, she finds Kelly’s self-loathing and violent outbursts always stop them from having to stave off creditors such as the milkman, Ray (Reynolds) and the bank. Their family life is a mix of minor crises – one of her sons is arrested for theft, their car breaks down when Evelyn and daughter Tuff (Porterfield) take a trip – and major ones – Kelly remortgages their home without telling anyone, Evelyn suffers a fall and cuts her wrists on broken glass.
As the children grow up and begin to leave home, in the Sixties, Evelyn is contacted by Dortha Schaefer (Dern), a fellow contester who invites her to join a select group of women called the Affadaisies. All are contest winners several times over and all live similar lives of domestic drudgery enlivened by their successes. Her first trip to meet the group (where the car breaks down), leads to her being late home, and scares Kelly into thinking that Evelyn has left him. The ensuing confrontation sees Evelyn standing her ground for the first time.
But when she discovers that Kelly hasn’t repaid the mortgage he took out without her knowing, Evelyn has to fall back on winning a major contest sponsored by Dr Pepper. If she can win, then it will mean their being able to keep their home, and the family, together.
An adaptation of the memoir by Terry “Tuff” Ryan, and with a screenplay by her, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio is an overly saccharine but enjoyable distraction from the usual dramatics of real life stories, and features yet another effortless performance from Moore. On the surface, Evelyn is a recognisable fixture of the Fifties: the outwardly downtrodden housewife who’s a lot more clued-in than people think. Moore had already portrayed a more dramatic version of the role in Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven (2002), but here she accentuates the nicer, more even-tempered qualities of her character, while retaining an inner steeliness that is more than a match for the violent paroxysms displayed by Harrelson’s Kelly.
As befitting an actress of Moore’s stature and skill, Evelyn Ryan isn’t just a perma-grinned caricature of a Fifties housewife, and nor is she written that way, but Anderson’s only-just-dialled-down-from-day-glo approach to the material often gets in the way, making Evelyn seem impossibly irrepressible despite endless provocation. But Moore shows the character’s strength and determination to keep her family together, and the willingness to make sacrifices to achieve that aim, in such a way that the viewer can only admire Evelyn and the efforts she goes to to ensure everyone is cared for and supported. She’s selfless beyond the call of duty, and Moore inhabits the role in such a way that you never question her motives or her view of the world around her.
Against this, Harrelson has his work cut out for him, as Kelly does appear – initially at least – to be the very embodiment of an emasculated man, his deep-rooted anger at the way his life has turned out eating him from within and spilling out in booze-fuelled rages. But Harrelson shows how hard Kelly is trying to be better, even if he can’t quite achieve it with any consistency, and the scene where Evelyn returns home from visiting the Affadaisies, and Kelly is mad with panic, shows a man who is terrified of being left alone with his demons. In a separate scene we learn the reason for his frustration and anger, and when it’s revealed, the level of Harrelson’s empathy for the character becomes apparent. Always hovering in the background, afraid and uncertain as to how to engage with his children, Kelly is the alcoholic elephant in the room, and Harrelson imbues him with a desperate, overwhelming neediness that makes him surprisingly sympathetic.
Covering over ten years, the movie does tend towards the repetitive in terms of its depiction of Evelyn’s success with contests, presenting as it does a parade of problems that are resolved by the acquisition of an appropriately helpful item (and culminating in the Dr Pepper contest), but there’s enough incident in-between times to make up for the feeling that it’s all been done before, and will be again. The sexual politics of the time are held up for scrutiny, with Doyle’s oily bank manager downplaying Evelyn’s role in financial matters, and Gardner’s blatantly unhelpful priest who exhorts her to “try a little harder” in her marriage.
Away from the performances, it’s the recreation of the Fifties and the early Sixties (in many ways a simpler time for the average American family) that most impresses, with Edward T. McAvoy’s production design, matched by Clive Thomasson’s set decoration, providing the movie with a look and a sheen that DoP Jonathan Freeman exploits at every opportunity. And Terry Ryan’s script is often at its most enjoyable when reprising Evelyn’s abilities at coming up with winning slogans and rhymes, their hokey cleverness a perfect summation of Evelyn’s own outlook on life: cheery, slightly folksy, and always optimistic.
Rating: 8/10 – some may find Evelyn Ryan’s unremittingly cheerful attitude to life a little too much to stomach, but to do so would be to miss the point of Moore’s performance and Terry Ryan’s reminiscences of her mother: that she viewed life as an adventure, whatever the circumstances; as such, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio scores heavily and brightly as a tribute to a woman whose unwavering attitude can – and should be – looked upon as inspiration for us all.