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Hanging on for dear life

OUT NOW! WINTER'S BONE, the highlight of last year’s Berlinale, hits theaters today.

For most of us, life is something that can be better or worse. But for some people, life is about survival. And we don’t need to go back to the Stone Age, or the Third World, or even call up a natural catastrophe. It can simply be day-to-day life in the Ozarks, 21st century USA.

For Ree, every day is a struggle. Her mother is mentally ill, basically sitting in a chair all day long without comment, her drug dealing father has disappeared, and her younger brother and sister need someone to take them to school and check their homework. Her home is not a place where you can talk about unemployment or social security – it’s a place where the basic economic mechanisms we take for granted have broken down, a self-sufficient bartering society where you need to know how to shoot and skin a squirrel if you want to have something to eat, and where you sometimes have to depend on the kindness of neighbors who bring over a sack of potatoes.

But Ree, just barely out of her own childhood, is tough and knows how to navigate these archaic structures where strangers are not tolerated and a woman should know better than to stir things up. When the sheriff tells Ree that her dad has put up their house as bail, stirring things up is exactly what she does: she sets out to find her father before he misses his court date and the house is confiscated, and Winter’s Bone becomes a kind of road movie without much of a road.

While Ree forms unlikely alliances with people who can’t but admire her gritty determination, she advances little by little, gathering small pieces of information about her father, stretching the limits of community solidarity. Jennifer Lawrence is brilliant as Ree, and with her great feeling for the dry pastel colors and the rhythm of a bare landscape, Debra Granik, together with scriptwriter Anne Rosellini, made Winter’s Bone the highlight of last year’s Berlinale and this year’s surprise Oscar contender.

WINTER’S BONE | Directed by Debra Granik (USA 2010) with Jennifer Lawrence, Garret Dillahunt, John Hawkes. Opens March 31