Summer is the time for mind-numbing movies. Robots, explosions, your brain turning to goo. That’s about all a moviegoer can expect during these dog days.
My father used to say that even a blind hog will find an acorn every once in awhile. This summer I found a wondrous acorn of a movie called “Winter’s Bone.”
Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is 17. She should be going to the prom and hanging out with her friends at the mall. But Ree does not live in suburbia. Instead, she wonders where she’s going to get food for her little brother and sister, and where can she find her meth-cooking daddy.
Ree lives in the Ozarks, where the sunlight of modernity has yet to shine. The mores and values of that land are far different than any land most of us know.
When the sheriff comes to Ree’s house, he wants to tell her mama that her daddy is a bail jumper. Mama, however, is mentally ill so Ree hears the bad news, which she always does: Daddy put up the house for his bail. If he isn’t found in a week, the bail bondsman is going to take the house. And here is Ree with three faces to feed and no money for food, much less for anything else.
So begins the story of a young woman, for she is not a girl, who goes on a journey to find her daddy. She’s not looking for his help; that ship sailed long ago. Ree is looking to save the house for her siblings and a crazy mama who offers no words or assistance.
In Ree’s culture, women are not allowed to engage men in direct conversation. Everywhere that Ree goes, it is a woman who talks to her first. The women keep doors to the ones who have the information that Ree needs. They do the dirty work.
It’s like the family dynamic of lions: The lioness does all the work while the male lies around and is served. All through the story, Ree never deals first with a man. She must first go through the women, who perform all the hard, which is to say bad, work of life.
“Winter’s Bone” is the story of a teen who gives up everything for the sake of two little ones and a mama who knows no better. She suffers for the innocents that did not ask for this life but deserve a chance to live it.
Debra Granik, who directs and co-writes, delivers a spot-on portrait of the lives of those who have been cruelly called “poor white trash.” She gets it all right – down to the music.
In an opening scene, Ree is combing her mama’s hair. As she does, the radio plays “Father Along” – an old gospel song whose lyrics speak about a life where people live wrongly and get away with it. It holds up the ideal that the faithful will one day see vindication.
Flannery O’Connor famously said the South was “Christ-haunted.” What that scene does for the movie is set before us the image of Christ, not as a dynamic presence, but as a ghost that lingers in the background.
“Winter’s Bone” is one of the finest movies I have seen. It won the grand prize at the Sundance Film Festival and should be in consideration for the Oscars.
It is film storytelling in one of its best incarnations.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.
MPAA Rating: R for some drug material, language and violent content.
Director: Debra Granik
Writers: Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini (from the novel by Daniel Woodrell)
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence: Ree Dolly; John Hawkes: Teardrop; Dale Dickey: Merab; Garret Dillahunt: Sheriff Baskin; Shelley Waggener: Sonya; Kevin Breznahan: Little Arthur.
The movie’s website is here.
Michael Parnell is pastor of Temple Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is married and has two boys. His love is for movies, and he can be found in a theater most Fridays.