Winter’s Bone is a tough movie in every possible sense. Based on the novel of the same name by Daniel Woodrell, it tells the story of Ree Dolly, struggling to raise her two younger siblings in a hardscrabble community in the Ozark mountains. The craft of the film itself is spare and sinewy, using the stark winter woods and the silence between characters effectively.

Seventeen-year-old Ree is the sole provider for her mother and two young siblings. Her father has staked the land and their house for his bail. When he doesn’t make his court date, Ree and her family stand to lose everything. Although at first Ree stoically refuses neighbors’ help, she grows more and more desperate to find her father and save her family. She asks questions that the close-knit rural community thinks she shouldn’t ask, ignoring warnings, and even staggering violence, trying to save her family home.

The movie followed a hero’s quest. Ree goes through trials and undertakes a long journey, physically—up and down the hills and through the cold woods—and emotionally, swallowing her pride and gathering her courage to defy the tight-lipped community’s conventions and get answers she needs.

As hard as it can be to watch a movie of such violence and abject poverty, the film itself finds beauty in the toughness. Shot in the sepia tones and closely shadowed cabins of the rural Ozark winters, the film captures moments of beauty and dignity. Each character seems to hold a well of silence, a stillness in his or her stare, even as conflict and tension crackle.

Jennifer Lawrence’s performance as Ree is haunting, in the way she uses quiet moments and her steady gaze, only hinting at the pressure that the character is under. Her voice softens when she talks to her mother and her younger siblings, taking care of them. (A scene where she teaches her brother and sister to shoot a gun is surprisingly tender.) Her chin juts out stubbornly as she refuses to back down from elders who won’t tell her where her father is. The film is full of poignant roles for women. Dale Dickey’s turn as Merab radiates both menace and weathered beauty.

Debra Granik, left, producer Anne Rosellini, center, and producer Alix Madigan Yorkin pose for photographers during a photocall for the film "Winter's Bone" at the 36th American Film Festival, Sunday, Sept. 5, 2010, in Deauville, Normandy, France. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)

In a screening at the Athena Film Festival in New York in mid-February, director Debra Granik and producer Anne Rosellini, who wrote the film together, talked about the process of making it, and of shooting in the Ozark community. It was important to them to tell the story as accurately and sensitively as possible. Numerous research trips helped them understand the way to direct both the actors and local community members. For the minimalist film score, they made sure to use local musicians.

Granik and Rosellini filmed inside the small spaces of a family’s actual house, to preserve the look and feel of Ree’s experiences, taking care not to crowd everyone with film technology. “I think more money would have been cumbersome, would have rolled over our subject,” said Granik. “If we had been able to light up the woods, if we had been seen as people who couldn’t work with the endowment that was given us, our relationship [to the community] would have been very different. It would have messed us up.”

Seen as part of a women’s film festival, Winter’s Bone perhaps captured the spirit of the event more than any other film on the program. Ree’s perseverance keeps her balanced under the burden of her family, even as she pushes her community’s close network of women to help her.

And now, for Oscars night.

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  • Quora March 2, 2011 at 1:02 pm

    Is “Winter’s Bone” any good?…

    I actually don’t believe Stanley Tucci was in “Winter’s Bone.” I think you were thinking of The Lovely Bones. “Winter’s Bone” has been generally very well received and is a very gripping portrayal of one girl’s strength in the face of violence …