If it wasn't a movie, you might not believe it – The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio is based upon Terry Ryan's memoir of her mother, Evelyn, who raised her family of 11 with her skill at composing jingles and winning contests. This tragically little-seen film stars Julianne Moore as the irrepressible matriarch whose mastery at jotting jingles helped keep her brood from being bounced out of house and home. Set in the late Fifities and early Sixties, writer/director Jane Anderson charts Evelyn's success as well as her struggles with her alcoholic husband, Kelly (Woody Harrelson).
As expected with a tale of this ilk, there are terrific highs and terrifying lows but ultimately, a deeply poignant resolution – a unique choice by Anderson is to have Moore frequently breaking the fourth wall, addressing the audience via quirky, stylistic sequences that feel heavily influenced by the work of, say, the Coen brothers. By relying upon these stylized interludes, Anderson spices up what might otherwise fall into a predictable, cliched rut.
The cast is great, although the meatiest roles belong to Moore and Harrelson, whose consistently solid character work continues to surprise, both here and in the recent North Country. Unfortunately, with there being 11 children at various ages, most of the actors playing them are a blur, indistinguishable from each other. Jonathan Freeman's cinematography and Edward T. McAvoy's production design compliment each other nicely, sharply evoking a world of yesteryear. Narratively, Anderson treads a fine line between sentimentality and raw dramatics; it's to her credit, as well as Moore and Harrelson, that the film never devolves into outright mush, although the film's coda veers awfully close.
Ultimately, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio is a quiet, small film that deserves more of an audience than it garnered during its lightning-fast theatrical run; one hopes that it will find an appreciative viewership on DVD, earning a place as one of 2005's less flashy classics.
The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio arrives on DVD with a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer which looks sharp and clean, befitting a recently released film. There's no edge enhancement or other visible defects and the exquisite period detail looks great. A very smooth, film-like image.
A film that delights in dialogue, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is nevertheless richly textured and very immersive – an active sound-field that has several moments of punchy bass and sweet highs, most notably in John Frizzell's evocative score, which features contributions from Nickel Creek's Sean and Sara Watkins. A Dolby 2.0 stereo soundtrack is included, as are English, French and Spanish subtitles.
There isn't much in the way of bonus material, but what's available is better than nothing: a pair of commentaries – a candid, informative one from Anderson, a chatty, engaging one from Moore – are on board, as well as a photo gallery and trailers for Just Like Heaven, Prime and Pride and Prejudice.
The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio is a handsomely mounted film about a woman undeterred by the complexities of life, whose indomitable spirit lights up writer/director Jane Anderson's tragically little-seen movie. Despite the seemingly thin extras, it's a title well worth tracking down. Highly recommended.