Even though one happens out in the sticks and the other occurs in the Big Apple, both are emblematic of the current hard times: a family of poor folks trying to make-do in the Ozarks of southwest Missouri; the second, a lower-middle-class family wedged in urban struggles between the proverbial Haves, who patronize their small business and the Have-Nots on the sidewalk outside their specialty resale furniture shop or down the hall in a cramped, drab apartment building they call home.
Both "Winter's Bone" and "Please Give" have nothing glamorous to offer. Everyone in each film is hopelessly ordinary. (*Except for one in "Please Give.") All the characters are living their lives like most people do---with the usual human traits most of us have come to know and, in some instances, love. The lifestyles in either film are lightyears apart, but the emotions of the characters are quite similar.
"Winter's Bone" comes from the 2006 novel of the same title by Daniel Woodrell. Woodrell was born in Springfield, in southwest Missouri. The movie, directed by Debra Granik, was shot near Branson, Missouri which sits about a half-hour's drive, or so, south of Springfield. Woodrell's work has been described as Country Noir. That's what "Winter's Bone" is---darkness in the modern-day Ozarks.
The young woman who carries the film, Jennifer Lawrence, is just 20 years old. She plays 17-year-old Ree Dolly. Because of the family's poverty, she's put it in her plans to join the military, some day. But Ree's mother has undergone a psychic breakdown, leaving the teenager to care for and raise her 12-year-old brother and 8-year-old sister.
Jessup Dolly, Ree's father, is well known to other hill folks as well as the local sheriff (played by---who else, but---Garret Dillahunt ("No Country for Old Men," "The Road") as a carousing drug dealer who's moved on from making his living growing weed to cooking methamphetamine. If you haven't been to the bucolic backwoods of America, meth, now, way outshines moonshine.
Sheriff Baskin shows up at the Dolly house one morning and tells Ree that Jessup is due in court soon. Since her father's been on the lam, vanishing somewhere into an AWOL state, Baskin advises the girl that Jessup has put up his house and land as bail, and should he not appear for the hearing, Ree, her mom and the two siblings will lose their place and the property.
"The Grapes of Wrath," all over again, and this time, in the lovely Ozarks? Yes, but there is no California dreaming.
"Winter's Bone" is primarily about Ree finding her father. She wants to talk him out of jumping bail...or, if he's been whacked, get proof to the sheriff of Jessup's death so her family won't lose the home and property. That's pretty much it.
The whole story could have been easily told in about 35 to 40 minute's time, but Granik wants "Bone's" to linger on Ree's noble sense of responsibility for her little brother and sister and the desire to make a better life for the whole family.
Dolly kin, scattered about the Ozarks, are a shady, reclusive klan. Most don't cotton to giving Ree the real story on what's up with Jessup or his whereabouts. At first, it's difficult to know if anyone actually has anything to snitch on about Jessup Dolly, but, in the seeking of him, there is conflict and a good deal of violence, much depicting dominance of male over female---and enough of it to make most sensitive human beings who see it wince.
Ree knows, though, that her long suit is intelligence and spunk. By being unflappably persevering is all she has to keep a roof over her loved-one's heads. Ree Dolly is surely an admirable character and Jennifer Lawrence is excellent doing the role. Both are what's best about "Winter's Bones."
Ms. Lawrence has been cast in an upcoming film to be directed by Jodie Foster titled, "Beaver." She was also in the recent indie film, "The Burning Plain" with Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger.
"Please Give," though it connects, as well, to contemporary fiscal stress, isn't noirish, although a bit dreary. Catherine Keener (now appearing in "Cyrus"), in the lead as Kate (a wife and mother), is a superb actor and injects her natural, intelligent brand of perk into Granik's project. Kate's spouse, Alex, is played by the reliable and usually jolly Oliver Platt, with Sarah Steele as their teenaged child, Abby, who's plagued by bad skin.
In the next door apartment, Rebecca, played by Rebecca Hall ("Vicky Cristina Barcelona") is effective as a sweet, single gal who works for a doctor as a radiological technician. It's a much different turn than what she did in the Woody Allen film.
Rebecca lives with her creaky grandmother named Andra, played by Ann Guilbert. Rebecca's sightly older and pretty hot sister, Mary (played by Amanda Peet, "Syriana"), usually winds up being a bitch about something if she's not at the spa giving facials. (*) It's sort of a stretch for Ms. Peet, as she, with her Jennifer Connelly allure, is playing against type: clearly the Cruella de Vil of this piece. Running counter to what one sees on the screen of Ms. Peet, we're supposed to believe that Mary can't get a really neat guy. Hah. That's really a stretch when it becomes clear with whom she's bedding-down.
Public radio listeners will get a charge out of Sarah Vowell (author of several books, including "The Wordy Shipmates") when she appears in a short scene as a customer at Kate's and Alex's shop. Ms. Vowell is a perky intellectual Okie born in Muskogee who now lives in New York City.
But Andra is the scene-stealer, voicing blunt insults at others in the building who are trying to make-nice with an old woman they're waiting on to croak in the near future. The old gal, with her dyed red hair, is more than savvy enough to see through Youth's natural aversion for the aged and aging, itself. Some of Andra's slings and arrows are enough to make Betty White green, and generate loud chuckles in the theater every time one is uttered.
With its imploring title, "Please Give" is about guilt...or, guilts, actually...for marital infidelity; ripping-off others doing business; being selfish; caring, but not enough; fretting whether one has done all one can, etc.
Kate hands out $5 bills to homeless people on the street to salve her guilt for jacking up prices on dead people's Fifties vintage furniture she and Alex sell to yuppies who come comfortably supplied with disposable income. Alex is undertaking a covert liaison menopausal men tend to get themselves into. Rebecca is making herself feel bad and even less confident in case she's not attentive enough to her grandmother while Mary shows no remorse for her cold, selfish attitude, until...
No real resolution is apparent for these circumstances. They're just there in the film to be apprehended, mulled over and evaluated as seen through a scope of incredible female perception possessed by the person who wrote and directed "Please Give," Nicole Holofcener, who also created "Lovely and Amazing" from 2001. Holofcener's resumé includes directorship for episodes of HBO's "Six Feet Under," which, if you've read my stuff at all, is one of your friendly narrator's all-time TV show faves.
"Please Give" and "Winter's Bone" are very direct movies about women by women---not to be confused with the "Sex and the City" franchise. I'm glad such films are made even though they'll never do the business of an "Avatar." It's not possible for them, because the connections these movies make come from authentic-looking moments lived in ordinary lives without benefit of Computer Generated Images and gold-plated sets.
Another genre of motion picture that slips neatly into this "not-as-popular" niche is the contemporary war film---no, not historical movies about warfare, mind you: WWII flicks are far enough back in time so that their relevancy tends to blur. You know, a bit like someone thinking Abe Lincoln was a neat and effective president, even though, if this Kentucky native were putting his philosophy to work in 2010, there'd be those who'd want him deported or worse.
I've read the hackneyed article too often that would have a generic title something like, "Why Does Hollywood Make Contemporary War Films?: Most people don't go to them...they don't want to think about Iraq and Afghanistan." (Publishers love long titles with one hyphen.) Now having been taken to such a point, it's difficult to avoid another movie wag going on and on about the shaft filmdom received when "The Hurt Locker" won Best Picture.
The two movies discussed here don't hold, as they say, a candle to "The Hurt Locker," but they have something to say almost as important as Kathryn's Bigelow's smashing work of cinema. So get a grip. Go out and see a movie that, as we used to say back in the Roaring Sixties, "Tells It Like It Is"---not what it seemed to be.
It does a Pilgrim good.
"Please Give" official site; now showing.
Check Yahoo Movies-Tulsa for theaters and times.