One of the more perplexing mysteries of modern studio practices is just why Dreamworks Pictures abandoned The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, a 2005 release that played on a mere handful of screens to mixed (though often glowing) reviews. It boasted a box-office draw in both star Julianne Moore and its popular literary source that chronicled the true story of Evelyn Ryan, who kept her large family together and going in the 1950s by winning slogan and jingle contests. And yet it was unceremoniously pulled from distribution. Far worse films with far lesser credentials have been given much fairer shots.
It’s not a perfect film, no. First-time feature director Jane Anderson approaches the film with a TV movie mindset that’s bolstered by cute “fantasy” devices made just that much more cloying thanks to John Frizzell’s saccharine musical score. But the film has several things to recommend it, starting with Moore’s performance as the beleaguered housewife who has found a way to be at least a pale shadow of what she might have been in an era that didn’t consign her to the kitchen.
Moore finds layers of pain and meaning in the character that have little to do with Anderson’s script, which tries too hard to work as both uplifting and downbeat. More, the film does a good job of recreating its era — at least as we tend to remember it — and never becomes Happy Days-like treacle. Certainly it’s worthy of better treatment than it received.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke