Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio
directed by Jane Anderson
(DreamWorks, 2005)

At first glance, Evelyn Ryan is trapped.

Ten young children at home. A husband who drinks his paycheck. A society and church that put the blame squarely on her for not "making do." This 1956 housewife could be excused for being a bit bitter.

Yet this most resilient of women, as portrayed in Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, is about as close to a saint as you'll see in movies these days.

"Let's go to bed. I'm tired of this day. I need a new one," Evelyn (Julianne Moore) says calmly to her brood after her husband's (Woody Harrelson) latest rampage.

Evelyn's story on the screen is based on a book by the same name by her daughter, Terry Ryan (with a great subtitle, "How my mom raised 10 kids on 25 words or less"). As a housewife whose options would have been limited even in the best of situations, she somehow manages to find an outlet for her creativity that fits the narrow confines of her life: Evelyn finds she has a knack for writing jingles and for winning the contests that filled airwaves. Bikes, trips, cash, pogo sticks, a car, kitchen appliances -- they all flood into the Ryans home at 801 Washington Ave. through Evelyn's work.

It doesn't always sit well with her husband, Kelly, who endures ridicule for letting his wife be the breadwinner.

Moore and Harrelson carry the film, and Harrelson has the least enviable of tasks: Making this man a sympathetic character, one who may occasionally deserve Evelyn's never-ending compassion. Yet he does, and Kelly's unhappiness with his life and his rage at not knowing how to change anything are palpable.

And Moore, who was born to play these roles, with the full-skirted shirtdress, peep-toe heels and flippy hair, brings a grace to the role that just barely glosses over Evelyn's core of steel.

When her winnings fund the down payment on a house, the Ryans go to the bank to sign the mortgage papers. As Evelyn carefully removes her white gloves to hold the pen, the banker assures her it won't be necessary: only her husband need sign the deed. Evelyn's face flashes from disappointment to resignation to her "public" smile so quickly you have to wonder if you saw the expressions at all. She puts her white gloves back on slowly, pulling back her excitement with each little tug. It's Moore at her best.

My only complaint: The book may explain where Evelyn's strength comes from, but here, Evelyn's simply unruffled, perfect, and we wonder at the source of all that sunny fortitude.

Still, that's a pretty small complaint for such a largely wonderful film. Add an emotional resolution for both the fictional Evelyn and the real woman, and this is one of those movies, both sincere and unexpectedly moving, that deserves a bigger audience.

review by
Jen Kopf

12 January 2008

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