Writer-director Jane Anderson's thoughtful and energetic film The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio faithfully adapts Terry "Tuff" Ryan's non-fiction family memoir. The Ryan family lived hand-to-mouth in the '50s and '60s, but matriarch Evelyn Ryan supported her husband and ten children as her alcoholic husband Kelly repeatedly failed to stabilize himself or the household.
Julianne Moore fully captures Evelyn's use of "underused wits," discipline, and gumption to enter every contest she can find and to win most of them. Anderson finds humor in the bygone days before contest promises became empty, but plenty of pathos in Ryan's bravery, faith, and devotion to her family and her own irrepressible muse (best expressed through rhyming jingle couplets). Evelyn's poignant story celebrates personal triumph but also slyly salutes creative American entrepeneurship. Accordingly, Anderson includes a "contesting" women's club called the Affadaisies, led by a sunny Laura Dern, but the writing is on the wall as telemarketing and bait-and-switch tactics replace the innocence of contests.
Evelyn's optimistic pastel wonderland (represented by '50s-styled fantasy visuals accompanying first-person narration) must consciously suppress dark tones. Woody Harrelson nicely handles the role of Kelly, whose masculine pride is battered by his breadwinning wife; as Evelyn wriggles out of her gender box, Kelly's only seems to tighten ("You're too damn happy!" he tells her). If his frustrations burst out in alcohol-fueled, impotent rages, resulting at times in "accidental" injuries to loved ones, Kelly can be defused just as quickly, like a dog rapped with a rolled-up newspaper.
In a road-trip scene played as a life-changing attitude adjustment for "Tuff," Evelyn explains to her realist daughter that life is to be cherished, even in its lowest moments; ironically, Terry has driven the license-less Evelyn on this rare escape from home, implying that the next generation will indeed be better off than its predecessor. Evelyn refuses to accept defeat or blame (unhelpfully, the police and church rush to the defense of her domestic abuser; the local priest offers only, "No one says life is easy"), but clings to the upbeat attitude that keeps her sane and active.
In Anderson's hands, the characters take on qualities more iconic than idiosyncratic, so the film has a calcified quality of history (despite Evelyn's protest "For God's sake, Kelly, I'm not a saint"). Still, Anderson has in Ryan's story a bittersweet exemplar for the unsung toil and love of prefeminist desperate housewives, caught in a gender tug-of-war with postwar men-around-the-houses.