Missouri-Filmed Winter's Bone Dominates Spirit Awards

I love independent films! They’re produced by smaller film   studios, have smaller budgets and limited releases, and yet often leave me with hauntingly deep impressions for days afterward (Memento, Donnie Darko, The Usual Suspects, Brokeback Mountain ... to name just a few).


This year, we have another small yet powerful indie movie rising to the top.

Filmed in the stark, desolate landscape of southwestern Missouri’s Ozarks Mountains, Winter’s Bone, a “tender and flinty adaptation” of the novel Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell, has been warmly received by both critics and viewers alike since its debut at the Sundance Film Festival last January. Directed by Debra Granik, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Anne Rosellini, the movie was made with a modest budget of $2 million.

Last month, it won both Best Film and Best Ensemble Cast at the Gotham Awards, against an impressive list of nominees that include The Kids Are Alright, Blue Valentine, Let Me In, and my personal favorite Black Swan.

Winter’s Bone also won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting awards earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival.


Among all the talented nonprofessional actors in Winter’s Bone - many with faultless regional accents - is the young and exquisite Jennifer Lawrence (she was 17 or 18 at the time of filming). Even though Lawrence has never attended acting classes nor has she had any formal acting training before, her portrayal of the unstoppable Ree Dolly is irresistible and dead-on:

“In Ms. Lawrence’s watchful, precise and quietly heroic performance, Ree is like a modern-day Antigone, making ethical demands that are at once entirely coherent and potentially fatal.” (The New York Times.)

Being from rural Kentucky, Lawrence has some real-world experience to bring to her role as Ree Dolly, a young woman whose mother is mentally-ill and close to catatonic, and whose drug-addicted father had disappeared years ago from her life. As the oldest of their children, she becomes the main caretaker of her family which includes two younger siblings.  Winter’s Bone is about Ree’s gripping and harrowing coming-of-age journey as she tries to keep her family safe against all odds.

Other cast members include John Hawkes (American Gangster, Me And You And Everyone We Know), Kevin Breznahan, Dale Dickey, Garret Dillahunt, Sheryl Lee and Tate Taylor.


With its shelves already filled with awards, Winter’s Bone’s climb to the top continues.

It recently leads the Spirit Awards with an impressive set of seven nominations. Winter’s Bone is up for Best FeatureBest Director (Granik), Best Screenplay (co-written by Granik and Anne Rossellini), Best Female Lead (Jennifer Lawrence), Best Supporting Male (John Hawkes), Best Supporting Female (Dale Dickey) and Best Cinematography (Michael McDonough).

If you haven’t heard of the Spirit Awards before, it honors independent movies that are made with a budget of $20 million or less. The awards will be presented one day before the Academy Awards - on February 26, 2011 .


Because the movie is set among the mountain people of the Ozarks, a culture that is mostly unknown to many of us, Granik and her crew spent two years in the region to learn and absorb the local history and way of life.

Granik said her Ozarks lesson began with a guided tour by the author Daniel Woodrell of the local creeks, quarries and caves that inspired his novel. Being a native of the area, he also recommended a few books and historians to help Granik with her project.

Production still photo via Google.

Production still photo via Google.

Once the research phase was complete,  Granik filmed Winter’s Bone in 24 days in early 2009. She highlights the music of the region in her film, which was not mentioned much in the novel. “It seemed like it would be an error of omission,” she explained. Granik used local musicians and performers not just in the film, but also for the movie soundtrack.

Granik even ended up casting - as Ree’s younger sister - Ashlee Thompson, the daughter of the   family whose house she used as the main filming location.

As the backdrop for Winter’s Bone, the austere countryside of the Ozarks Mountains is real and harshly beautiful. A New York Times article describes it as follows:

“The topography of chilly hollows and ragged forests is filmed in a way that emphasizes its bleakness. There are banjos and fiddles, as well as guitars, and some beautiful old mountain ballads are performed on   camera.”

Combined with McDonough’s exquisite eye for cinematography and visual details, Winter’s Boneis a movie with many gorgeous freeze-framing shots, filled with warmth, clarity and texture.


Does the recent win at the Gotham Awards predict grander recognition to come for Winter’s Bone? Last year’s Gotham Awards winner for Best Film, The Hurt Locker, went on to win the Oscar. So we shouldn’t be surprised if Winter’s Bone will be named Best Picture by the Academy in February 2011.

Meanwhile,  this indie-darling has already won my affection and Roger Ebert’s. A raw, courageous movie authentically filmed on location in Missouri - with a strong, endearing female protagonist as its young warrior - is a recipe for success.

Winter’s Bone had a sold-out premiere in the Ozarks this past May. If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s a sneak peak at the movie.


For details on productions filmed in Missouri, visit the Missouri Film Commission’s website.