Winter's Bone tells the story of 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), a tough-cookie in Missouri's Ozark Mountains who takes care of her younger brother and sister since her mother is mentally ill and her father regularly disappears (he's a drug cooker). One day the sheriff comes by and informs Ree that her dad hasn't shown up in court, and the bail bondsman tells her that if he doesn't show up in a week, she and her family are going to be kick out of their home. Ree sets out to find her father, Jessup, but her various extended family members aren't too keen on her poking around for him.
Story-wise, the film starts pretty standard, with Ree going from one off-the-map house to another and being threatened to mind her own business, lest she suffer the wrath of her "relatives." And Debra Granik's direction (who co-wrote this film with Anne Rosellini and directed Down to the Bone in 2004) is Indie Filmmaking 101, with plenty of shots of trees, squirrels, and lawn "ornaments" to let you know that yes, this is rural. But the film takes some interesting twists as time goes by, leading up to a satisfying ending.
What really elevates Winter's Bone, though, are the incredible performances from the cast, especially Lawrence, who shines in the role of Ree. She's a complete, real character, so well played that its impossible to distinguish the actress from the performance (though a large part of that is probably because she's a relative unknown), and she balances her toughness and her vulnerability in a way that exposes Ree's fears of not being able to take care of her family. Of course, that's not to say that the rest of the cast isn't stellar as well. John Hawkes shows up as one of Ree's crazy relatives, Teardrop, and delivers a much more complex performance than was really necessary (that's a good thing), and Dale Dickey is equally excellent as Merab, who torments Ree more than anyone else. In fact, she and Lawrence share the film's best scene, which comes toward the end of the film and involves a boat and a chainsaw.
Lawrence and Hawkes
So, here's the question: what are this film's Oscar chances? There's really only two categories where this film really stands a chance at a nomination. Lawrence is, of course, getting plenty of talk about a Best Actress nomination, which, if she does get one, would make her the second-youngest nominee in that category of all-time at 19 (Keisha Castle-Hughes is the youngest; she was 16 when she was nominated for Whale Rider). Though Lawrence is deserving, her chances will really depend on how the rest of the year turns out; if there are stronger performances from more Oscar-friendly women, then she could find herself in the same position as Abbie Cornish last year, missing out on nomination morning. The iffier category is Best Original Screenplay. It's a fine script, and could earn the "indie sleeper" position that The Messenger picked up last year and Frozen River earned the year before, but that's doubtful considering the higher praises that The Kids Are Alright has been picking up.
Overall, this film earns my recommedation. It may not be one of the year's best overall, but its definitely worth seeing for star-in-the-making Lawrence's fine performance, as well as the strong overall ensemble.