Hollywood has googly-eyes for all the arrow-wielding, ass-kicking independent women in female leads. But in “The Prize-Winner of Defiance, Ohio,” Evelyn Ryan (Julianne Moore) stays in the kitchen.
She lives in a time period where the community insinuates that she’s foolish for not tolerating her husband’s (Woody Harrelson) drunken tantrums.
That’s not to say Evelyn never exercised her personal potential outside of the domestic sphere; her writing career was cut short by her obligations to her husband and 10 children. To feed her family, she aims her talents into a slew of writing and jingle contests for prizes—a fridge, a few dollars to pay the milkman, a shopping spree for groceries and even a pony to sell for the electric bill. Those periods of fame prove momentary, however, and financial burdens often override her winnings.
Evelyn’s alcoholic husband, Kelly (Harrelson), is an erratic figure who veers between admiration and jealousy of her winnings. Stuck in self-loathing, he can’t admit to himself that he competes with her to be the better provider.
The only ones who eventually praise her work are her 10 children – especially her daughter, Terry Ryan, who composed the biography of her mother that inspired this movie.
Underrated screenwriter and director Jane Anderson curbs this indie story so it won’t hit the dull beat of a simplistic, sentimental Lifetime movie. Anderson allows the audience to question how much Evelyn suppresses her doubts about her station in life, and how much she’s enabling her husband’s immaturity.
He daughter offers the progressive idea that her mother deserved to hold an intellectual career free from the domestic sphere, and she is not incorrect. But to insist that Evelyn “deserved better” than her housewife status (unless in the case of deserving a more mentally stable husband) would be downplaying her achievements within the home.
Perhaps she should just have a vaguely honorary “strong female lead” plaque right next to Katniss Everdeen’s. In any case, “The Prize-Winner of Defiance, Ohio” stays true to defying society’s narrow perception of a woman’s capability.