It is a weird experience to screen co-writer/director Debra Granik's new film Winter's Bone, winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Best Feature at this year's Sundance Film Festival, a mere 48 hours after the funeral for one of my oldest and best friends.
Melissa and I prided ourselves on being survivors, on overcoming circumstances and life experiences that the majority of people would deny even exists. When we first committed to healing, we often spewed forth our stories to anyone who would listen. Over time, we both came to realize that, even at our most healthy, we were somehow different from everyone else and no matter how hard we tried the gap would never be bridged.
We'd both been accused of fabrication, of outright lying and of being drama queens. Time and again, those without any knowledge of our lives or the cycle of abuse would project skepticism regarding our stories. This bothered Melissa more than it did me - I expected it. I learned to filter my testimony as I began a lifelong commitment to speaking in schools, civic groups, churches and to other survivors of abuse.
Melissa, instead, bottled herself up and trusted only a select few.
We leaned on each other, sometimes going long periods of time without contact but always being aware of the other's whereabouts. Melissa was the first person who I knew and always trusted loved me without question.
A longtime social phobic, I was quickly becoming a Type A- personality and an increasingly successful writer, minister and activist. Melissa fostered her own professional growth working with the developmentally challenged and children at-risk, even if she did admittedly have difficulty applying her therapeutic techniques to her own life.
It is hard, extraordinarily hard, having a huge chunk of one's life that remains difficult to comprehend, even believe. Melissa and I took a tremendous sense of pride in surviving and thriving beyond circumstances that would swallow up the life and capacity for joy of many individuals.
Together, we survived.
I am less than 48 hours removed from Melissa's funeral, a product of her own self-inflicted abandonment of survival, of hope, of her family, of her daughter and, yes, of me.
The "unbelievable" world in which we grew up and from which we've spent our lifetimes trying to escape has swallowed up yet another victim. It feels like, once again, evil has triumphed over good.
I am still here, but I cannot help but wonder why.
It is into such a world, a world of hardened and impenetrable humanity that co-writer/director Debra Granik takes us with her new film, Winter's Bone, which captured the Grand Jury Prize for Best Feature at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and is now on the arthouse circuit distributed by indie distributor Roadside Attractions.
Winter's Bone is no Precious, and it is not in any way a reflection of my own life experiences or personal testimony. Yet, Winter's Bone is a stunning and authentic portrait of a world that remains similarly misunderstood and shrouded in a veil of disbelief and caricature.
When Hollywood portrays the world of poverty-stricken Missouri or similar Appalachian-type settings, it does so either with a heightened sense of inbred drama or tongue firmly planted in cheek with a bottle of moonshine in one hand.
This is not real.
Winter's Bone is real. Achingly real. Heartbreakingly real. Disturbingly real.
Granik refuses to glamorize or stylize Winter's Bone by turning it into an action thriller or distracting audiences with a comfortable love story or tension relieving laughs.
Neither, however, is Winter's Bone a "downer" flick. Winter's Bone never reaches the dramatic heights of a soaring Mo'Nique dialogue or an eloquent speech of redemption.
There are times when the characters in Winter's Bone are stunningly evil, especially given they're being faced with the pleas of a 17-year-old girl, Ree (relative newcomer Jennifer Lawrence), who is simply trying to locate her meth-addicted father in an effort to save her family home and care for her two younger siblings and an incapacitated mother. Yet, their evil isn't the evil of serial killers of paint-by-numbers horror flicks. Instead, the evil within Winter's Bone is the product of a worn out, weathered and stark humanity that is very real and exists despite our own denial.
However, what Granik truly captures well is the humanity within this stark existence. The evil, for example, contains sprinkles of unspoken compassion and familial ties while the unfathomable desperation in the film is infused with an almost relentless will to live and discover and find resolution.
The characters in Winter's Bone may be poverty-stricken and may lead lives we cannot begin to comprehend, but they are living, breathing human beings whose very existence requires a level of emotional and physical exertion unknown to most Americans.
The cornerstone of Winter's Bone is Ree, portrayed by an under-the-radar Jennifer Lawrence without an ounce of pretense or a false note being played. Lawrence's performance is not sympathetic nor is it apathetic...it is simply, astoundingly alive and fully realized as a 17-year-old girl who lives a life in a world that the average American has no idea really exists. There is love in Lawrence's performance, but it's the sort of love that is borne out of one's unspoken but unquestionable responsibility to take care of family.
In her only other film, the searing Down to the Bone, Granik introduced the world to Up in the Air Oscar nominee Vera Farmiga, and Granik has most definitely struck gold again with the 19-year-old Lawrence, whose most recent work on The Bill Engvall Show surely masked this young actress's incredible talent. With appearances in Jodie Foster's next comedy and rumors that she's been cast in an upcoming X-Men prequel, Lawrence is about to become a household name.
Ree's journey through the meth-addled hills of poverty-stricken Missouri leads her to first confront her father's brother, Teardrop (John Hawkes, Me and You and Everyone We Know), and her best friend (Lauren Sweetser) before heading deeper into far off-the-road corners of the hills where meth labs and family clans dot the landscape and the women, whom you might expect would sympathize with the young Ree, are simultaneously maternal and murderous in their protection of their own male-dominated clans.
Ree, however, remains relentless even after surviving harassment, beatings, threats and not so subtle suggestions regarding her own mortality. This is never so vividly realized as with Dale Dickey's Merab, the wife of clan leader Thump Milton (Ronnie Hall), who projects the sort of maternal presence who you hope is always on your side.
Unfortunately, she is not on Ree's side.
Shot on location in Branson, Missouri, Winter's Bone transcends last year's Oscar-nominated Precious and other films like it because Granik expertly keeps the film from ever dissipating into a sea of hilljack cliche's and melodrama. As stirring and powerful as the story of Ree's journey is, Winter's Bone is far more about the fight for life than it is about the harrowing journey Ree undertakes to get there. The drama is very real and prevalent in Winter's Bone, but the film itself is never swallowed up by it.
If ever a camera has captured a sense of urgency, it would be true of Michael McDonough's work here in contrasting the hauntingly beautiful Ozarks with the grim, sparse inner existence of the families who live in these hills. McDonough avoids unnecessary lingering, trusting the story itself and the realistic visuals to leave a permanent impression. Indeed, they do leave a lasting impression.
Dickon Hinchcliffe's original music is as sparing and haunting as the film itself, while Mark White's production design is as important to Winter's Bone as the words, the characters and the story itself. They all, out of necessity, intertwine and complement each other.
There are life experiences that are unfathomable.
There are places in life where sane people do not go should the choice exist.
There are truths that are unbelievable.
Into all of these things, ordinary human beings live ordinary, often unobserved lives breathing, struggling to survive, driven to live and experiencing profound sorrow and, at times, equally overwhelming joy.
Winter's Bone may not end up being 2010's best film, but it will most assuredly be its most unforgettable.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic