Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio, The

Perfectly Perky

Main Cast: Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson

Director: Jane Anderson

How is it that a movie can have many elements that I should despise, yet leave me happy that I watched? It’s a phenomenon that doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s always a puzzlement – how do they pull this off? Objectively, I should not like The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, but somehow, some way, it manages to offset its own abundant annoyances. That’s a neat trick.

Based on a memoir (which is presumably based on the life of an actual person), The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio takes us back in time to the mid-1950s. A time when women were housewives, men were breadwinners and everything was orderly and perfect. Well, perhaps not. Certainly not in the Ryan household. Evelyn Ryan (Julianne Moore) is a housewife and husband Kelly (Woody Harrelson) is supposedly the breadwinner, but that’s pretty much where the post-war dream ends for this family. Kelly drinks his paycheck, leaving his wife and ten (yes, ten) children to somehow keep themselves fed and clothed. Sounds grim, right? Nope. Evelyn becomes a Contest Queen, winning cash and prizes in all sorts of corporate contests. These contests are everywhere at the time, and Evelyn has a rare talent for not only finding and entering, but winning enough to keep her family afloat. There’s the film in a nutshell – how this huge family survives on prize winnings from jingles and slogans.

So does this sound interesting? Perhaps mildly. Does it sound as though it has the potential to be a look at the reality of the 1950s rather than the idealized dream we’ve been fed through the years? Maybe. Does it have the potential to supply the world with its schmaltz quotient for the next decade? Almost certainly. And in a way, it does all of these things.

There is a plethora of things in this film that by all rights should make me nauseated. Julianne Moore’s Evelyn is so constantly perky and never-say-die optimistic that I want to punch her. Not only is the character written to be super-humanly patient, kind, good, talented and staunchly upbeat, but Moore plays her with a giant, unbelievable smile plastered under her bouffant hairdo. Maybe this woman really was this preternaturally persevering, but it’s a tough sell. Between the kids, the husband and the finances, it’s hard to accept this character as anything but a caricature.

The remarkable coincidences that fill the film are another stretch. When the going gets tough, the tough magically win a major prize that is exactly what the family needs! Amazing! Again, maybe this really did happen exactly as it’s told, but I don’t really believe that. It’s simply too much. The fact that the original memoir was penned by the real life Evelyn’s daughter Terry makes me feel like a whole lot of this story is based more on loving – and inaccurate – memory and nostalgia than on real history.

But I like The Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio. How can that be? Those are major, unrelenting flaws I just outlined. But the movie sucks you into this make-believe world by upping the make-believe a notch or ten. Evelyn herself (Moore, in character) narrates a number of sections discussing the various ways of contesting, her history with Kelly and other germane topics. Each of these segments has the cutest, corniest, most deliberately dated special effects I’ve seen in quite some time. Little bouffanted, shirt-dress wearing groups of smiling ladies singing jingles in the refrigerator, Evelyn flying on a black and white letter across the country as she describes how contests work – it’s all terrifically cute and shows that the movie isn’t taking itself completely seriously – and that we shouldn’t either. With this type of silliness setting part of the tone, it’s much easier to relax and let the characters be unrealistic and nostalgic. We can enjoy the ride as Terry Ryan re-lives her mother’s life through rose-colored glasses. We can enjoy this woman’s loving tribute to her mother who had to have been, even without all the whitewash, a remarkable woman.

What shines clear through the entire film is how much this family, and this daughter in particular, admired their mother and appreciated her indomitable spirit in the face of a less than ideal life. Yes, the script and performances are over the top, but director (and writer of the screenplay) Jane Anderson and her production crew know it, revel in it and use it to give the movie a charm and sweetness that would be lost in a more “realistic” portrait.

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio is sappy, unrealistic and annoyingly perky. But it’s also corny and cute and knows exactly what it is, and digs in with both hands to make the most of all that nostalgia, love and admiration for Evelyn Ryan. It isn’t so much a biography as it is a love letter to a woman who made a life out of scraps for ten children. All of the silly production gimmicks manage to work their magic and help us understand that we aren’t watching The History Channel, that we need to take the details with a grain of salt and invest in the story of the most amazing thing a mother can give her children – the ability to remember childhood fondly and with love – no matter the circumstances or, even, the reality. Now plaster on a smile and go give your children a hug, someday that’s what they’ll remember.

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