Evelyn Ryan (Julianne Moore), a housewife raising her family of 10 kids in a small house in Defiance, Ohio, is a `contester', one of a legion of women who enter every contest imaginable. But Evelyn is quite good at it, and quite lucky, and wins many prizes, helping to keep her family afloat. Kelly (Woody Harrelson), her husband, is a machinist who spends more money on beer and whiskey than he does on the family's milk, coming home every night to get drunk. One day, the milkman arrives and Evelyn doesn't have enough to cover the bill. Then the postman arrives and one of the envelopes contains a $2 cash prize for a poetry contest. Problem solved. One problem that can't be solved is Kelly's escalating alcoholism and resentment towards Evelyn's luck. One day, Evelyn gets a letter from Dorotha Schaefer (Laura Dern), the leader of a group of contesters who want Evelyn to join. One problem that can't be solved is Kelly's escalating alcoholism and resentment towards Evelyn's luck.
"The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio" written and directed by Jane Anderson and based on the memoir of Terry Ryan, one of Evelyn's middle kids, is an interesting film for many reasons, but it also fails in one key aspect.
The film spends a significant amount of time explaining what Evelyn does. She enters a lot of contests and wins a lot of prizes while raising her ten kids. To convey this, the film has a lot of fun recreating television commercials and family life in the 60s, sometimes blending the two. Frequently, Evelyn addresses the screen to explain what she does, as she stands next to herself doing what she is talking about. It is usually a bit problematic when a character breaks the fourth wall and starts talking directly to the audience, but the overall tone of the film is so light and breezy that this technique seems to fit. There are a couple of montages using retro graphics from the period, commercials and more as Evelyn walks through, talking about all of the prizes she wins, all smiles. At one point, Evelyn wins a shopping spree at a local supermarket. Her mantra is to get anything exotic and exciting. So that evening, the family has a meal of caviar, capers, hearts of palm, and the like. These are fun and interesting references to family life during the 60s.
When the story returns to the family and their interactions with Kelly, the film is less successful. Harrelson's Kelly is a very one-note character. Yes, he loves his wife and kids, but he spends a significant amount of time drinking and yelling and acting terribly towards them as well. The film doesn't spend enough time or seem to care enough about why he is like this. There is a brief moment explaining that he used to sing and an accident robbed him of this gift. Why does he take it out on his family years later? He didn't even have a family when it happened, so it really isn't their fault. He didn't marry Evelyn and have kids and then decide to stop pursuing his dream because he had to support them. All of that happened after he could no longer sing. Because there isn't a lot of motivation for them, his histrionics and outbursts become repetitive and boring.
Moore's character is more interesting. Evelyn is always smiling, in fact Kelly complains at one point that she is always `so happy'. Pretty early on, it becomes clear that the smiling is a defense to help her and the children deal with Kelly. But since everything is circling back to the abusive husband, we have to understand why he is like he is. And we don't. Not completely. Basically, because Moore's character is always smiling, and rarely reacts in a way other than "Oh, dear, look at what father has done", her character becomes fairly one-note as well. She never, ever really becomes upset at anyone or anything. Later, when she is finally ready and able to take a day trip and meet Dorotha and the other contesters, one of her young boys does something that prevents the trip. On another occasion, one of her older boys does something that prevents her from taking a trip to New York, as part of a prize. Each time, her smile merely falters a little and then returns. "There, there. It will be all right." This is clearly a big part of Evelyn's character, but it doesn't make her all that interesting. Also, it makes a large portion of her family, including her husband, seem selfish.
Early on, after one of Kelly's drunken episodes, she seeks help from the police and the leader of the Catholic Church they attend. The reactions of these two groups, remember it is the early 60s, firmly establishes why she feels she must handle all of the problems herself. This scene is interesting and helps to add a lot to her character.
As the film is based on a memoir by Terry "Tuff" Ryan, she becomes a bigger part of the story than the rest of the kids. At one point, Tuff learns how to drive and gladly agrees to drive her mother to Indiana to meet with Dorotha and her group. During the drive, they have a conversation about Kelly and become closer to one another. After this point, Tuff becomes the main figure among the children and her character is interesting and compelling. She even takes on her dad more than once.
But this sudden emphasis on her character makes the lack of knowledge about any of the other kids all the more noticeable. The oldest daughter hangs around in the background until she is accepted to nursing school. This information about nursing school is the most we ever learn about her.
The film is ultimately very uneven and works only part of the time. It almost feels like the author didn't quite dig far enough to get to the root of the two central characters, her parents.