Capturing the way fear can transform a few feet into an impassable chasm, an early scene in The Prize Winner Of Defiance, Ohio illustrates the unspoken boundaries of the crowded Ohio home that serves as its primary setting. As the expansive, downwardly mobile Ryan family huddles around the television with mom Julianne Moore, dad Woody Harrelson stands in the kitchen and rants at the radio, his nightly pint of whiskey and six-pack fuelling his rage at the bumbling Cleveland Indians. When one daughter tells Moore she needs to retrieve a notebook from the kitchen, she talks about it as if it meant going behind enemy lines.
Set in the years when the '50s became the '60s, The Prize Winner Of Defiance, Ohio adapts Terry Ryan's memoir of growing up in dire straits. One of 10 children born to a failed singer and a mother who gave up a promising writing career to be his wife, Ryan watched as her dad tried his hardest to drink the family's money away while his wife pulled them out of hardship by winning corporate-sponsored contests. Writing jingle lyrics and catchy slogans for products they couldn't afford—including sandwiches too upscale for their hamburger lifestyle—she found a channel for her creativity and a means to keep her family afloat.
In Jane Anderson's adaptation, Moore wears a smile in almost every scene, but it's easy to see the desperation rising behind her eyes. It's a deft, understated performance, if a tad too similar to Moore's work in Far From Heaven. That's true of the film as a whole. Anderson doesn't engage in the artful Douglas Sirk apery of Todd Haynes' film, but the film's early scenes capture domestic strife and the many subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways that post-war mores discouraged female creativity in microscopic detail. Sadly, it never quite delivers on that promise, bogged down by cutesy touches like the occasional appearance of jingle-singing fantasy figures and an unwillingness to look too deeply at the troubled Ryan clan. Moore's scenes with a miscast-but-game Harrelson offer a study in how spouses learn to handle even their partners' most destructive impulses, but in most other moments, Anderson fails to get beyond the surface of her characters' lives. It's almost as if she can't see past Moore's unfailing cheer and even-tempered assurances either.