The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio. Revolution Erie Productions, 2005.
The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio. Revolution Erie Productions, 2005.

Before watching the movie: When I ask someone new for a movie recommendation, there’s a high likelihood they’ll suggest something I’ve already seen. There’s a very slim chance they’ll recommend something I’ve never even heard of. Not every movie I’ve ever reviewed is obviously to my taste, but the ones that aren’t are pretty much the cinematic canon. And now there’s this. Possibly the first small drama I’ve seen outside of a film festival. I might have passed it by without the strong recommendation of a new friend. The closest reference point I have is something like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? for reasons that become less clear as I explore what they might be (for one thing, I remembered that one as a period story and it’s actually contemporary). This seems to essentially be a story about a housewife supporting her children by writing for prizes. So it’s more like October Sky (intellectual skills lifting people out of bad situations), only probably not at all. After watching the movie:

The Ryan family has 10 children, and the father Kelly Ryan drinks most of his earnings. The only reason they get by is that in addition to raising all those kids and keeping house, Evelyn Ryan wins writing contests pretty much professionally. Through all of their financial struggles, there’s always a new prize earning to stave off the latest crisis. While the kids grow up, Evelyn tries to stay positive while being pulled every direction at once and continually putting her dreams aside for later, and Kelly has more trouble expressing his pride in his wife than his humiliation in not being the family’s top earner.

As a memoir of a large family (adapted from a book by one of the middle daughters), what this reminded me most of is Cheaper by the Dozen. However, while the Gilbreths start out rich and only face financial hardship near the end, the Ryans are never more than treading water. And yet, except for Kelly, they’re mostly happy with their status quo. Evelyn was working in advertising before she married Kelly, and her contests are basically the same thing, while Kelly was going to be a singer before his throat was injured in an auto accident and he retreated (further?) into drink.

Though the subject matter is often dark and troubled, this is countered with a whimsical third-wall breaking style of narration that uses all sorts of visually interesting effects. Evelyn often speaks directly to the camera to tell her story, and give asides with background information. It’s a device that’s key to pacing this 50s/60s story in a manner so modern it’s surprising this is already ten years old (ish, as it came out in October).

While this is framed as Evelyn telling her own story, it was written by one of the daughters, and the third act starts to show “Tuff”/Terry’s viewpoint, no doubt since she was at an age to be particularly aware of what was going on with the family by then. With ten kids, much of the family is going to be glossed over, though some of the older boys get their moments earlier, so I don’t know how much Tuff’s part is really inflated by virtue of being what the author best remembered and how much is inflated by me recognizing that this one is the writer and paying more attention to her.

Much like Cheaper by the Dozen is a portrait of a fondly-remembered father, this is a perhaps more nuanced portrait of a fondly-remembered mother. It’s not all sunshine and roses before the crescendo starts, which just makes the good parts better, and makes a more satisfying movie.This is nothing like what I expected to blog about, and it’s nothing like I expected it to be from the summary. This is life, lived as best as possible.

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One thought on “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio

  1. Girl for Animal Liberation August 19, 2015 / 7:58 am

    I stumbled upon your blog after having done a Google search on “Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio”. You see, I recently watched this movie via Netflix streaming (it was a “Netflix Recommendation for Susan”. That’s me!). I was skeptical at first, but ended up enjoying the movie. I could even physically/emotionally *fee* their struggles as I too am a child of the 60s and remember my parents struggles. Call me nostalgic but despite the struggles, looking back, it seemed like such a simpler time, when neighbors knew one another. Peopled helped one another. We wrote letters, picked up the phone, walked across the street to talk to someone… For me, those were good times.

    Anyway, I loved your post on the movie. Have a good day.

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