"Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio": How a perfect '50s wife endures

In her print housedresses and carefully waved hair, Julianne Moore floats through "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio" like a vision of the perfect '50s housewife. And it would seem that her character, Evelyn Ryan, is perfect: effortlessly managing the lives of 10 children and an alcoholic husband (Woody Harrelson), cunningly eking out the family finances by her winnings from jingle contests, cooking the meals and cleaning the house and folding the clothes so that all the corners line up perfectly, even in the midst of turmoil, and always with a patient smile.

"I'm not a saint," she says late in the film, and the line weirdly echoes — this film does everything but canonize her.

Based on a lively, touching memoir by Evelyn's daughter Terry, Jane Anderson's film brings an odd bounciness to this woman's difficult life. Domestic scenes in the Ryans' cramped home are interrupted by kitschy song-and-dance numbers, as the words Evelyn carefully sculpts for her contests come to life. And at times Moore steps out of the movie to address the camera, sometimes even standing beside her own character. All this feels unnecessarily theatrical, and weakens the real-life story behind it. There's a disturbing, angry undertone to the movie — about the powerlessness of married women of that era — but Anderson keeps raising the issue and then pulling a gimmicky curtain in front of it.

But the film still resonates, at times very powerfully so, because of Moore's performance. She's no stranger to playing '50s housewives: Evelyn is a more working-class version of the perfectly controlled ladies she played in "The Hours" and "Far From Heaven." Here, like her "Far From Heaven" counterpart, she's got a spine of steel and a voice of satin, murmuring praise to her children even as she negotiates around their often scary, self-loathing father.

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Showtimes and trailer 2.5 stars


"The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio," with Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Ellary Porterfield. Written and directed by Jane Anderson, based on the book "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less" by Terry Ryan. 99 minutes. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some disturbing images and language. Metro.

"You're too damn happy," he tells her, as she giggles with the children while dreaming up a new contest slogan, and the miracle of Moore's characterization is that we believe her — despite everything, she is happy.

Evelyn Ryan, who died in 1998, would seem to have had one of the rarest of gifts: the ability to find joy in the moment, even when things seem dark. This film is an uneven but loving tribute to a remarkable woman — who would, undoubtedly, have wished to rewrite it herself.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com