The Prize Winner Of Defiance, Ohio

Director: Jane Anderson
Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern

A number of years ago, I read some of the works of George Bernard Shaw, which to my delight I found to be very entertaining and interesting. When I read his play Major Barbara, the theme of the play stuck in my mind, that being poverty is the worst of society's crimes. Certainly, I think many people who are poor do need some help from society, but at the same time I think that ther are some poor people could do something to raise themselves from dire straits. I first started to think about this way back in my childhood, specifically in the third grade in school. It started when my teacher read the classic Roald Dahl children's novel Charlie And The Chocolate Factory. More likely than not you read or had read to you this novel sometime or another, so you can probably remember what its setup was. As you will remember, the central protagonist Charlie was a child who was living in a bad way. He had four bedridden grandparents that all shared one bed, and he had a father who made very little money screwing caps on tubes of toothpaste (and who eventually lost that job.) Charlie and his family didn't have much to eat, and they lived in an old and crumbling house that was freezing to live in during the winter. Well, I remember even as a child when I heard that setup, I was a little confused. Certainly, I wondered why the teachers at Charlie's school didn't see that he was suffering and contact child protection services. But I was more curious about the fact as to why Charlie's parents didn't reach out to some government agency for welfare or some other kind of benefits, especially when Charlie's father lost his job. For that matter, I also wondered why Charlie's mother and father didn't reach out to the Salvation Army or some other kind of charitable organization for some help.

Yes, I do realize why Dahl didn't have Charlie and his family do the obvious things that could have improved their situation - if life had gotten better before Charlie got the golden ticket, the narrative wouldn't have felt right. And I certainly realize that in real life, many poor people really can't do much to try and improve their lives. But as I said, there are some poor people that I think could, with a little work and determination, improve their situation from a little to a great deal. After all, we have all heard stories of people who started out poor but eventually became wealthy by putting their nose to the grindstone. That leads to an interesting question: Just how did those people manage to do that? Well, I admit that I am not an expert in this field, but over the years I have managed to make some observations that I have seen reoccur with many rags to riches stories. The first thing I have seen is that many of these people who earned success found something they were good at. If you are good at something, that means that you have a greater chance of finding success over many others in that particular field. The second thing I have noticed is tied with the first - finding a demand for something, like a product or a service. If you recognize a demand for something - and you are skilled at providing that demand to the public - well, it is very likely that you will soon be making a lot of money. There is one other thing I have observed that is tied to those first two things, that being that whatever you are skilled at doing and find a demand for is something that you enjoy doing. If you are enthusiastic about doing something, it will show in your work, and will make your efforts more attractive to the public.

Although I am not poor, I have taken those three things and put them into my life with my web site. I saw that there was interest with the public about being informed about good (and even bad) movies they hadn't previously heard of. I also thought that I was a pretty good writer and could The Prize Winner Of Defiance, Ohiosatisfy that demand. Most importantly, I enjoy watching and writing about obscure movies. And I have received considerable success, which makes me very happy. So you can probably guess that I have an interest in other people who have worked hard to improve their circumstances, especially those who are struggling to make ends meet at the same time. That's certainly one reason why The Prize Winner Of Defiance, Ohio interested me when I found a DVD copy, but also that it was based on a true story. Biopics are a genre I haven't exactly covered greatly in the past, so that was another reason for me to take a look at this movie. The "prize winner" of Ohio mentioned in the title of the movie is a woman by the name of Evelyn Ryan (Julianne Moore, The Gun In Betty Lou's Handbag). She is married to man named Kelly (Woody Harrelson, Sunchaser), and the two of them have a grand total of ten children. Though all those children may suggest a house full of love and devotion, Evelyn and Kelly actually have a rocky relationship, namely due to Kelly's rampant alcoholism and his inability to find good employment because of that, as well as his depression coming from his past dream of being a singer was cut short by a car accident that ruined his singing voice. So it is up to Evelyn to be the breadwinner, and she provides for her family not by a regular job, but by entering contests. Specifically, contests by major companies that invite the public to write jingles and slogans, with the winners getting big prizes. And Evelyn proves to be very good at this, winning prize after prize. But despite her great luck, it might not be enough one day to keep her family fed and with a roof over their heads.

As you might have guessed by the plot description above, the events of The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio take place in an age several decades ago (specifically, from 1957 to 1963) instead of more recent times. I have to admit that movies that are period pieces aren't exactly my speciality. But at the same time, I feel I know enough about any specific past age that I can tell if the cinematic recreation in front of me is authentic... or at least well crafted enough to fool me. The most obvious way is with the period details, from the cars to the furnishings. Director (and also the movie's screenwriter) Jane Anderson does bring in the appropriate period details in each and every scene, but curiously, there is still a funny feeling. Specifically, we get the feeling that whatever scene we are seeing, only this specific area has details of the time, and what is just beyond the camera range is contemporary. In other words, we don't feel this is a fully fleshed-out world. Maybe this feeling comes from the somewhat low budget ($12 million) Anderson was given. I will say that the actors and the characters they play seem comfortable in their surroundings, and you do believe that the characters are products of an older time period. Thankfully, the children of this family do not have a modern-day vibe or attitude. The child performer that does best among them is actress Ellary Porterfield (Video Game High School) playing "Tuff", namely because her role is pretty much the only one among her on-screen siblings that gets something substantial to do. She has a few good scenes where her character shows real emotion about her family's often dire situation when talking to her mother in private. The other Ryan children get little to nothing to do; we don't even learn all of their names until the final few minutes of the movie.

But maybe that's was inevitable, given that there are ten children in total, and the movie's main focus is on the Evelyn Ryan character and her struggles to keep her family intact. The character certainly has some substantial interest. She almost always has an upbeat attitude, but it quickly becomes clear that she is not upbeat because she is naturally that way. She knows that she has the weight of the upkeep of her husband Kelly and children on her shoulders, and that if she were to become downbeat, it would affect her family and result in her burden becoming even greater. (She waits until she is alone in one scene to finally cry.) Julianne Moore's performance finds the right note for this character, where you can tell by her voice that her character is secretly worried about the welfare of her family yet managing at the same time to convince her family that everything will be okay. I could even believe her incredible patience with her no-good husband Kelly who drinks away his paycheck. She tells Tuff at one point, "Your father's careless, but not mean." But at the same time, she doesn't give Kelly a complete free pass. At one point, she tells him, "I don't need you to make me happy. I just need you to leave me alone when I am." She sees different sides to Kelly because he is a man of more than one dimension. Certainly, he has a bad side with his alcoholism and irresponsibility with his wife and family, which lead to some heated and scary moments. But at the same time, we see he has a vulnerable side. As stated earlier, he is depressed about not becoming a singer due to a past car accident. And when he thinks that Evelyn has left him after a misunderstanding, his great anguish shows his low self-esteem and inability to be a proper husband and father. Actor Woody Harrelson makes his character's sudden changes from one extreme to another feel natural and believable, enough that he often steals the show from Moore.

Moore and Harrelson - and their interestingly written characters - help to make The Prize Winner Of Defiance, Ohio worth a look. Though even they can't make up for some significant weaknesses in the movie. Some of the weaknesses may have come from the fact that the movie's story structure is pretty much just a series of vignettes loosely linked together instead of having one strong story. This may explain why we learn extremely little (or not a thing at all) about key things about the characters, such as how Evelyn and Kelly met, why they fell in love, and why they decided to have ten children. There are also some seemingly major plot turns that are brought up but then soon after immediately dropped and forgotten about, like one of the children being arrested for stealing, and another about Evelyn joining up with other women interested in contests as much as she is. Another problem with the movie is with its occasional comic relief. While I can sense some natural silliness coming out of this setting and characters, the occasional humorous touches in the movie seem a bit overdone and heavy-handed in my opinion, such as with one minor character's predicament of being in an iron lung. The broad humor doesn't really fit with the tone of the rest of the movie, which is one of down to earth struggle and desperation with flawed yet human characters. Yet while the movie has these and other weaknesses, the movie never commits the ultimate sins that a movie can make, and that is by being boring and/or insulting to the intelligence. The movie certainly should have been finer tuned (and better budgeted) before filming started, but even when the movie occasionally messes up, its mistakes often strangely prove to be interesting rather than distracting or annoying. These flawed moments come across like seeing an accident scene where no one got hurt; you can't help but look on with interest, and you don't feel guilty finding that interest. Obviously, this movie isn't for everyone at any time, but those with lower expectations may find this to be a somewhat uneven, but all the same interesting, viewing experience.

(Posted March 4, 2024)

Check for availability on Amazon (DVD)
Check for availability on Amazon (Amazon Prime Video)
Check for availability of source biography on Amazon (Book)

See also: Brigham City, For A Few Lousy Dollars, Our Winning Season