IFF Boston: Winter’s Bone

25 April 2010, 6:57 am

At IFF Boston you get these ballots that ask you to rate each film from one to five, with five being best. These get counted up for the audience choice awards, and presumably factor into what is considered for next year’s lineup.

I am really bad at rating things from one to five. The numbers fill me with questions I know the organizers don’t want to hear: is it a linear scale, or logarithmic? Is a bell curve distribution expected? Would a “five” mean the best film I see in the festival, the best film I see all year, or an all-time favorite movie? I have to make up my own answers to these questions, and the result is that even if I really, really like a film, I usually don’t grade higher than four. (I gave my physical therapist answers like 2.35 when asked to rank my pain from one to ten, but IFF Boston doesn’t allow intermediate values.)

So it means something that I unhesitatingly gave Winter’s Bone a five. I was drawn into its compelling story from the opening seconds. Ree Dolly, a young woman essentially raising her two younger siblings, learns in the film’s first few minutes that her father put her house and land up for his bail bond, and he’s gone missing. If Ree can’t find him, she and her charges will be thrown out of their home. The performances are uniformly outstanding, with Jennifer Lawrence as Ree and John Hawkes as her uncle being particularly noteworthy.

The script, which director Debra Granik and co-screenwriter Anne Rosellini adapted from a novel by Daniel Woodrell, displays uncommon emotional depth and psychological realism. Granik has a documentary film background, which manifests itself in exacting attention to detail and authenticity: the film was shot on location in Missouri, in and around real people’s homes, and using local talent. The production traded local residents new clothes for old to put the actors in clothes that were actually worn-in rather than artificially distressed. But the gritty conviction these choices confer is balanced by unexpected moments of cinematographic lyricism: the winter Missouri landscape is beautiful as well as foreboding.

Irony Dept: One of the running themes of this year’s IFF Boston (even more than last year, I think) has been the difficulty of getting funding to make these films. Several filmmakers, including Granik, refused to make the compromises that backers wanted and completed their films with private money. Granik revealed that she could’ve gotten backing if she’d cast an inappropriate big marquee name in the role that went to John Hawkes. But it was actually Hawkes’ name that lured me to this screening; I’d been planning to see something else until I noticed his name. I thought Hawkes was enormously likable as Sol Star in Deadwood, but there he played a character who was almost anachronistic: not particularly sexist, racist, or even violent. Deadwood gave me no idea what his range as an actor was like — Winter’s Bone does.

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