At first glance it would seem that housewife Evelyn Ryan (Julianne Moore) lives an idyllic life alongside her husband Kelly (Woody Harrelson) and ten children in Defiance, Ohio in the 1950s. But it is not easy raising ten kids with hardly any money to hand. Kelly resigned himself to a dead-end job after a car crash ruined his promising career as a garage-band crooner. Now he wallows in self-pity and alcohol-fuelled rages. Evelyn takes it upon herself to deal with their poverty. Putting her long suppressed writing talents to good use she enters a string of jingle-writing contests that were all the rage throughout the Fifties and early Sixties, even sending in multiple entries in the names of her children. She proves remarkably clever, winning more than her share of prizes though her continuing success stirs no small amount of resentment in Kelly. As Kelly retreats further into the bottle, the debts pile up and the wolves start baying at their door, it falls to the ever-loving and optimistic Evelyn to hold her family together through trying times.
Remarkably this is a true story. Co-produced by Robert Zemeckis, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio was based on the book of the same name written by Evelyn's daughter, Terry Ryan a.k.a. Tuff. She is portrayed here by actresses Jordan Todosey as a nine year old and through her teenage years by Ellary Porterfield as her mother's steadfast ally and father's harshest critic. Despite impeccable production values and an outstanding cast the DreamWorks release went largely overlooked in the States and was barely released on these shores. Which might have been down to it being marketed as comedy when the tone is somewhat closer to tragi-comedy, although the feel-good factor endures.
At the heart of the film lies a dysfunctional love story. For the more successful Evelyn becomes as the family bread-winner, the more embittered her husband grows. An exuberant turn from a radiant Julianne Moore is ably counterbalanced by Woody Harrelson's more acerbic performance. Though foul-mouthed, frustrated and prone to explosions of rage, he nevertheless evokes some pity. For all their quarrels, Evelyn loves Kelly dearly and understands exactly why he is so embittered. As Evelyn tells Tuff at one point, she got to keep her voice while her husband lost his. Nevertheless, writer-director Jane Anderson shows the social constraints women endured in the male-dominated Fifties. Neither the police nor Evelyn's local Catholic priest prove much help, directing all their sympathies towards Kelly. It falls to Evelyn to finally make use of the writing talent and ambition she sacrificed for so many years to raise her family to bring about their salvation. The film is very much an ode to selfless motherhood as time and again, Evelyn puts her own dreams and ambitions on the back-burner to ensure each of her kids makes good. She does manage to find a kindred spirit in pen pal Dortha Schaefer (Laura Dern) who invites her to join a social circle of housewives who enter contests nationwide.
One could also describe The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio as something of a fairytale for the consumer age, set against the backdrop of America's consumer boom, an age when gumption and ingenuity could conceivably make miracles happen. Mentioned in passing is that this halcyon age is about to come to an end, as the era when contests requiring a certain amount of talent or skill is slowly being superseded by those dependent solely on sheer luck. Some beautiful production design really captures the homespun charm of the period without wallowing in excessive nostalgia. While undeniably episodic the film is compelling and surprisingly fast-paced for a period piece. Anderson employs a number of eye-catching devices to keep things visually interesting but grounds her film in substantial human drama and a stellar turn from Julianne Moore as a truly remarkable woman of formidable talents who really did raise ten kids on twenty-five words or less.