The sober little indie gem "Winter's Bone" is a stellar alternative to the studio dreck that has given Hollywood a case of the box-office ho-hums right now.
The tale of an indomitable Ozark Mountain teen determined to hold together her family and home, "Winter's Bone" is raw, real, understated, fiercely intense and surprisingly gentle and decent amid bursts of ferocity in the rural crime culture where the story's set.
In barely an hour and a half, writer-director Debra Granik immerses the audience in a rich, almost alien trek through a cloistered backcountry that outsiders rarely see.
Roughhewn clothing, earthy slang, roots music, gloriously bleak landscapes, the graphic lesson a sister teaches her young brother on how to skin and gut a squirrel for frying — the detail captured in "Winter's Bone" is remarkable.
As a youth on a desperate search to learn the fate of her wayward, lawless father, Jennifer Lawrence delivers a breakout performance as stirring as those of 2009 Academy Awards nominees Gabourey Sidibe ("Precious") and Carey Mulligan ("An Education").
With a screenplay by Granik and producing partner Anne Rosellini, who crafted an extremely faithful adaptation of Daniel Woodrell's taut novel, the film casts Lawrence's Ree Dolly adrift among some very bad kinfolk in her severe corner of rural Missouri.
Stuck raising her younger brother and sister and tending to her almost catatonically depressed mother, 17-year-old Ree learns her absent father put up the family homestead and surrounding timberlands to post bond on his latest arrest for cooking crystal meth.
Now her dad has dropped out of sight with a court date at hand, leaving the Dollys in danger of eviction.
With slow, inexorable momentum, Ree trudges the countryside, staring down distant relations in the region's criminal underbelly for answers about her father.
Each exchange Granik orchestrates is its own wonderful drama. Ree appealing in fearful boldness for help from her father's menacing, drug-abusing brute of a brother, Teardrop (John Hawkes). Ree spitefully dismissing a ruse by one of her dad's associates as he tries to throw her off the trail. Ree, wise beyond her years and growing wiser with every encounter, sizing up and cutting down the sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) who locked up her father in the first place.
It's a hopeless quest from which Ree never relents.
"Ain't you got no men that could do this?" asks Merab (Dale Dickey), the consort of the local crime kingpin that Ree pursues for answers at risk of her own life.
"No, ma'am, I don't," Ree plaintively replies.
The language and action of "Winter's Bone" are simple, the weight and meaning profound. There are no hillbillies, hicks or rubes in this backwoods tale. This is high drama filled with nobility, savagery and everything in between.
Lawrence, who co-stars with Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster in the upcoming comedy "The Beaver," is a quiet force of nature as Ree, and the bond the actress forms with Hawkes is both hopeful and heartbreaking.
Director Granik has a history of capturing breakout performances. Her first film, 2005's "Down to the Bone," did similar duty for Vera Farmiga.
Hawkes, who played the Jewish lawman turned shopkeeper on TV's "Deadwood," exudes ornery meanness as Teardrop, whom the actor also imbues with a sense of honor and duty that is oddly uplifting in a story and surroundings as desolate as this.
Yet hope is at the core of "Winter's Bone," in the way Ree nurtures her siblings, tends her ailing mama, and maintains a sisterly bond with a childhood friend (Lauren Sweetser). As nasty a hand as she's been dealt, Ree has the backbone to take it.
One of the best films to come out of the Sundance Film Festival in the last decade, "Winter's Bone" won the top prize there for U.S. dramas last January, the same award "Precious" earned the year before.
"Precious" went on to great success at the Oscars and other Hollywood honors. "Winter's Bone" is a nearly flawless film and deserves similar consideration from awards voters — particularly for Lawrence and Hawkes' performances and Granik's great directing achievement.
"Winter's Bone," a Roadside Attractions release, is rated R for some drug material, language and violent content. Running time: 100 minutes. Four stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.