The movie heroes who affect me most are not extroverted. They dont strut, speechify and lead armies. They have no superpowers. They are ordinary people who are faced with a need and rise to the occasion. Ree Dolly is such a hero.
She is a girl of 17 who acts as the homemaker for her younger brother and sister. This is in the backlands of the Ozarks. Her mother sits useless all day, mentally absent. Her father, who was jailed for cooking meth, is missing. She tries to raise the kids and feed them, scraping along on welfare and the kindness of neighbors. The children, like all children who are not beaten, are cheerful and energetic and love to play. They have not learned they are disadvantaged.
This world is established with bleak economy in the opening scenes of Debra Graniks Winters Bone, which was a double prize winner at Sundance 2010. Unmistakably filmed on location, this is a society that has been left behind. It looks like Walker Evans photographs of the rural Depression, brought forward to today. The unanswered question is how Ree Dolly grew up in this world and became strong, self-reliant and proud. She didnt learn it from her parents.
The sheriff comes to call. Her father, Jessup, has skipped bail. To meet his bond, he put up the house perhaps the only asset he had. If he doesnt turn himself in within a week, the family will be thrown out. Just like that. Ill find him, Ree says quietly and firmly. And thats what she sets out to do.
Ree is played by Jennifer Lawrence, a 19-year-old newcomer who has already made Jodie Fosters new film. She embodies a fierce, still center that is the source of her heroism. She makes no boasts, issues no threats, depends on a dogged faith that people will do the right thing even when no one we meet seems to deserve that faith. Dont ask for whats not offered, she tells her little brother, although the lives of her parents seem to be an exercise in asking and not offering. Did she raise herself?
Everyone in the district knew that Jessup cooked methamphetamine. He is a modern moonshiner. What is obvious is that meth doesnt seem to have made him much money. Perhaps its illegality is its appeal, and its market is among people he feels comfortable with. Rees travels in search of her father lead her to his brother, Teardrop (John Hawkes), whose existence inflicts a wound on the gift of being alive.
There is a hazard of caricature here. Granik avoids it. Her film doesnt live above these people, but among them. Ree herself has lived as one of them and doesnt see them as inferior, only ungiving and disappointing. In her fathers world everyone is a criminal, depends on a criminal, or sells to criminals. That they are illegal makes them vulnerable to informers and plea-bargainers, so they are understandably suspicious. The cliche would be that they suspect outsiders. These characters suspect insiders, even family members.
As Rees journey takes her to one character after another, Granik is able to focus on each ones humanity, usually damaged. They arent attractions in a sideshow, but survivors in a shared reality. Do they look at Ree and see a girl in need and a family threatened with eviction? I think they see the danger of their own need and eviction; its safer to keep quiet and close off.
So the film rests on Ree, counterbalanced by Teardrop, who is aggressive with his hatefulness instead of passive in amorality. A story like this could become mired in despair, but Rees hope and courage lock us in. How did she get to be the way she is? We are born optimistic, although life can be a great discouragement. In every bad situation, there are usually a few good people.