Women like Ree Dolly don’t come from the cities of America
Of all the things that make those of us in west-central Iowa what we are, being rural is the most defining. Inspired by my friend Bill Bishop with the Center For Rural Strategies’ Daily Yonder I find myself increasingly viewing politics, business and issues of the day — and even pop culture — through a rural-vs.-urban lens.
And with the Academy Awards on Feb. 27, we in rural America have a rooting interest in the “Best Actress” category.
In the urban corner, we have a mesmerizing performance from Natalie Portman in Black Swan, a film about a ballet dancer, the fictional Nina Sayers, who takes a toxic blend of ambition and perfectionism to the cliff’s edge of insanity — and then Evel Knievels off before our eyes. Set in New York City this is an urban film with citified sensibilities and a main character engaging a very metro-like naval-gazing. The urban-dominated Academy, I’m guessing, is drawn to this role: you have to make Portman the favorite.
But she shouldn’t win. The prize should go to Jennifer Lawrence for creating, in Winter’s Bone, a rural heroine for the ages.
Poverty in America is often given an urban black face. It’s a stereotype, also visible in any metro area, from Des Moines and Omaha, to Chicago and New York City.
Rural white poverty is very much alive and well, too, although not always easy to spot, as it hides around the mountain or off a country road, in an apparently abandoned trailer that is, surprisingly, a home.
We don’t see it, or we don’t want to.
Winter’s Bone grabs us by the hand and leads us into this world, punching us in the face with its realities.
Set in the Missouri Ozarks, Winter’s Bone chronicles the heroic efforts of Ree Dolly. Amid the squalor of off-grid living and the danger of the methamphetamine trade that convulses her entire extended family, 17-year-old Ree, played brilliantly by Lawrence, raises two younger siblings.
Winter’s Bone won the grand jury prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Lawrence’s performance is the best performance I’ve seen in some time.
The main plot vein is Ree’s search for her father, a man caught up in the meth wars and missing. Jessup Dolly has put up his family’s home and wooded land for a bond on charges of drug dealing. When he doesn’t show up for court, Ree’s family risks losing what little they have.
In 2010’s summer of melancholy Bella, of “Twilight” fame, Lawrence’s Ree Dolly is a revelation. She’s tough as nails, shooting squirrels in one scene and spitting out bloody teeth after a confrontation in another. No tears, either. Or hand-outs.
“You don’t ask for what ought to be offered,” Ree tells her brother, as he longingly watches a neighbor skin a deer.
While the movie shows despairing rural conditions, it is far from anti-rural. No cheap stereotypes here.
What’s more, Ree Dolly is one of the strongest female characters you’ll ever see in American film. Women like Ree don’t come from the cities. They’re minted in our nation’s forgotten rural reaches.