In movies like Deliverance, The Hills Have Eyes, and Southern Hospitality, the heroes make a wrong turn and wind up in hillbilly hell, where degenerates with rotten teeth and funny accents pursue them with murderous gusto. But suppose you were a resident of hillbilly hell and, what is more, were determined to stay there? Then you would be like Ree Dolly, the seventeen-year-old heroine of Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone.

Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) dwells in an Ozarkian corner of Missouri where the notion of dignified poverty died long ago. The houses are both Spartan and squalid, the land has gone to weeds and garbage, and the descendants of honest yeomen have become drug dealers. Enough sociability survives for get-togethers featuring the eloquent singing of mountain music, but even those not involved in the drug trade (like Ree) are expected to stonewall the despised police. Breaking the silence could earn you a bullet.

That’s precisely Ree’s problem. Her recently arrested dealer father has jumped bail and disappeared after putting up his house and property as bond. If Ree doesn’t find him soon, she, along with her mentally broken mother and two younger siblings, will be homeless. Her search earns her the hostility of her father’s associates and she soon cottons to the possibility that they may have killed him for fear that he would turn state’s evidence. In that case, Ree must pre-sent proof of his demise to avoid forfeiture. But since such proof might lead to more intense police surveillance, the criminals, many of them her kin, are determined to stop Ree. Yet she must persevere, for where would she and her penniless family go if they lose the house? Family means everything to Ree, yet it is her extended, criminal family that might be the death of her.

Some Hollywood master of melodrama might have filmed this story as a descent into sheer mountain-Gothic horror, but Debra Granik is working on an independent filmmaker’s budget and keeps her visuals closer to the style of documentary, which suits her view of the material as social tragedy, not melodrama. Ree is caught in a cul-de-sac, for even if she gets her evidence and retains her home, she’ll continue to live amid squalor and hostile relatives. True, she would keep her nuclear family, but what is to be the fate of her little brother and sister? Increasing squalor? Intermarriage within a decaying clan? Becoming cannon fodder for army pay? Maybe they will escape all this, but meanwhile Ree is losing her youth.

So this movie, appropriately, is at its best not in its scenes of menace (though these are effective) but in its observation of Ozark everydayness: a heavy-set woman, her jowls nobly quivering, singing her soul’s lamentations at a kitchen table; Ree’s little sister dressed for bed as one of Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things, forlornly reminding us that this is a home bereft of books; Ree trying to get her brother over the yuck factor of cleaning the guts out of the squirrel that must constitute that night’s dinner; Ree’s uncle, saturnine but surprisingly gallant, conversing with her at night in his pick-up truck with only his profile and a column of cigarette smoke visible in the gloom. From start to finish, Jennifer Lawrence’s face is a study of stoicism approaching its breaking point. Granik shrewdly chose an actress who can reveal emotion by suppressing it.

Nevertheless, viewers looking for more lurid excitement won’t be completely disappointed. The mystery of the father’s fate is resolved in a scene that justifies the movie’s title. It takes place at night. In a swamp. And features a chainsaw. It would have brought a grim smile to the face of Flannery O’Connor.

The Kids Are All Right is an oddity: a movie that begins with an unusual and richly comic subject, proceeds to treat that matter in a gratifyingly freewheeling style throughout most of its running time, then ends up a smarmy tearjerker. And it’s no failure of artistry that brought this about but a failure of nerve.

The premise: a lesbian couple, Nic (Annette Bening, capturing both her character’s strength and her underlying vulnerability) and Jules (Julianne Moore, who employs her fine-boned beauty to suggest a preternatural sensitivity), once used the contribution of the same anonymous sperm donor, Paul (Mark Ruffalo, who nearly elevates Southern California dudehood into an Jungian archetype), to produce a daughter for Nic and, three years later, a son for Jules. Allowing for the usual strains of family life and the pangs of adolescence, the household is a happy one, indeed a model of what the nuclear family should be, and its very conventionality is a witty slap in the face for those who automatically deplore gay marriage and artificial insemination.

Along comes trouble and comedy. The kids, Joni and Laser, track down Paul, a restaurant owner and seemingly contented sybarite. When everyone gets together the results are delightfully individualized both by the script (by director Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg) and the cast. The boy is wary, the girl is charmed. Nic, a dedicated doctor, proud of her academic star Joni and always seeking to stiffen the spine of the less ambitious Laser, deems Paul an annoying airhead and maybe a bad influence on the kids, while the insecure Jules finds him perhaps more of a soulmate than her beloved but carping Nic. Whenever the four family members and Paul gather, the air is charged with barely contained embarrassment, genuine curiosity, pumped-up tolerance, and the bemusement of the children at the foolishness of the adults. All of this makes for fizzy comedy and, like most good comedy, contains the seeds of melancholy, even tragedy.

And, indeed, the movie darkens when Paul and Jules bed down together. Nic blows her top, Jules is flabbergasted by her bisexuality (how much easier to be a wholehearted lesbian!) as well as her own capacity for deception, and Paul discovers that he no longer wants to be Mister Go-with-the-Flow. These people are plunged into chaos but they are also headed toward some form of self-realization. And the movie they inhabit teeters on the verge of being something really special.

It never happens. Here’s the rub: Paul not only disrupts the household; he spoils Lisa Cholodenko’s groundplan. This director has a warm heart but she also has an ax to grind and she’s willing to use it on the very character she’s developed with so much sympathy. In the course of the film Paul grows more than any of the others. Whether his new yearnings for fatherhood and commitment to Jules are really feasible (a ménage à trois including Nic? Not likely!), his growth makes us curious about his fate. But Cholodenko is so dead set on showing that lesbian marriage and parenthood can be stable that she won’t let the increasing complexity of the situation stand in her way. Paul ends up scorned by Nic (understandably), coldly rejected by Jules (not so understandably), and completely dismissed by both children, even though both have been shown groping toward self-awareness precisely because of their new relationship with their father. Yes, they might fight his wooing of Jules since that would destroy the comforting status quo, but would they really completely erase this man from their existence?

What was needed to preserve the initial honesty of the movie was a full-blown confrontation between the siblings and Paul. The results might have been funny or poignant or explosive—or all three at once—but, in any event, such a confrontation would have taken the temperature of the characters and brought the movie to a satisfying conclusion. Instead, what we get are group hugs, clasped hands, and tearful smiles all around, except for that bimbo, that dirty slut Paul, locked out of the house and condemned to the cold, metallic comfort of his motorcycle. This is narrative opportunism, a cutting of dramatic corners to provide an easy happy ending.

Published in the 2010-08-13 issue: View Contents
Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.
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