Anita Casey-Reed
 
 
    
 
In this photo provided by DreamWorks, Evelyn Ryan (Julianne Moore) tries to come up with another prize-winning jingle in DreamWorks Pictures "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio."
 
 

For many, creativity is just a fun boost to an already comfortable life. For Evelyn Ryan, the titular character played by Julianne Moore in the "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio," creativity was a means of survival, her way to keep children clothed, fed, and sheltered in tough times.

Taken from the memoir written by Evelyn's daughter, Jane Anderson's film centers on the ever-optimistic mother who "raised 10 kids on 25 words or less" by winning hundreds of commercial jingle contests in the 1950s. More than a lark to stretch Evelyn's under-utilized wits in the midst of endless household chores, the prizes kept the family afloat by replacing the wages lost to the nightly whisky consumption of her husband, Kelly (Woody Harrelson).

Americans still idealize the 1950s -- mom with a floral apron over her dress doing housework; dad coming home from work to listen to the game on the radio; the fresh-faced kids bicycling in the street at dusk. "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio" shows the reality that existed beside these images. Here is Evelyn using her apron to handle a diaperless baby while cleaning up two preschoolers AND scrambling to find enough change to pay the milkman. Here are the kids playing outside because Kelly has destroyed the kitchen after the Red Sox beat the Indians. The police officers called to the scene stay to chat about the team, before telling Evelyn to come back in and not to worry about a thing.

The movie may work better at home rather than in a theater, especially when Moore's character addresses the audience directly to explain how contesting works, to show off the fabulous prizes and to comment how an auto accident had changed the course of her marriage and led to their current situation. The film itself is very episodic as we see a decade of the family's life through meals around a crowded kitchen table and homework in front of the TV and how Evelyn used her quick humor to defuse tense situations and bring out the best in everyone.

"The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio," like the Ryan family, revolves around Evelyn. Julianne Moore has an astonishing capacity to produce a smile that simultaneously contains real joy, a need to have others believe everything is OK and a refusal to give up. Woody Harrelson has a much more thankless role, but he demonstrates how Kelly's pain and frustration causes him to lash out, driving him further away from those he loves. The ending felt rushed, as we're given the fates of the characters through a voice-over and the ubiquitous collage of photos with text. I suspect I'm complaining because I had grown attached to the Ryan clan and didn't want the story to end.



 
Anita Casey-Reed is a member of the Cinema 100 Film Society and a volunteer for the Dakota Digital Film Festival. She lives in Bismarck with her husband and two children.