It’s a good thing that 2010 is bringing to the big screen positive role models for teen girls in at least two films. As the mother of a 12 year-old, this gives me hope that teenagers don’t just have truly shallow vessels out there to look to for guidance. In the same year we have “16 and Pregnant” on MTV, we also have Winter’s Bone and True Grit.
I can’t take credit for this combining of central themes, since it was first tossed my way by Craig Kennedy from Living in Cinema. He is the one who first thought up this idea that the two characters could be compared. I spoke with director Debra Granik last week — part of that interview will be included in our podcast next week — I forgot to ask her about this, but since then, I’ve been thinking about it some. Since I haven’t read either book, I look forward to both Ryan and Craig’s comments on this — however, I have at least seen Winter’s Bone and I don’t think I’ve seen a more heroic young female character put to screen this year.
Two significant things the films have in common. One, they feature strong teenage girl protagonists, and two, they are both adaptations of stark, brilliantly plain prose.
On Mattie – this review from 1968 from the New York Times:
Action, milled fine through Mattie’s edged, ironic voice, makes the story. Mattie is the soul of pragmatism. She subscribes to the oldest American faith: “If yo uwant anything done right you will have to see to it for yourself every time.” To make sure her father’s murder is avenged, she hires a U.S. Marshal named Rooster Cgoburn, she decides, has “true grit,” and despite his liking for whisky he lives up to her evaluation. Riding along for a share of Chaney’s hide is LaBoeuf, a Texas Ranger turned bounty hunter. The men don’t want a scraggly 14-year-old along when the light out through Indian Territory. Mattie won’t be halted, though she will lose an arm from rattlesnake bite for her doggedness.
And this review from writer, my good friend, and Washington Post book reviewer, Carolyn See:
“Winter’s Bone” revolves around questions of grit, courage, authenticity, a willingness to face the pure physical unpleasantness of the way things are. “Ree Dolly stood at break of day on her cold front steps and smelled coming flurries and saw meat,” Woodrell writes. “Meat hung from trees across the creek.” It’s meat she needs, but it doesn’t look like she’ll get any. Her half-starving brothers have been crying for lack of meat, but she almost twists the ear off the one who wants to ask for some. When she teaches the boys to shoot, she insists they do their own gutting. When something terrible happens to her, she’s reduced to little more than a slab of pounded meat. And by the end of the novel, she must prove herself by holding firm to some of the creepiest, most unpleasant meat of all. That’s what her life comes down to.
In Winter’s Bone, Jennifer Lawrence plays the 17 year-old Ree Dolly. She lives amid poverty and meth, teenage pregnancy and army recruiting. All she’s trying to do is save her house and provide for his mentally ill mother and two younger brother and sister. Her father is gone, and he put up their house on bond — if she doesn’t find him they lose the house. Everywhere Ree goes, she is confronted with her bleak choices: she could be a drug addict, a pregnant teen, or she could join the Army. Not a lot of choices there for a smart, strong young girl such as she. When I asked Granik where she saw Ree going from there, the director said she envisioned her maybe becoming a social worker and helping other teenagers who want to steer their path out of the meth-soaked culture and towards education and a better life. I thought that was a good idea. One thing you never worry about watching Winter’s Bone: that Ree will falter. She is tough as nails and does not suffer fools.
The same could be said for Mattie Ross, played by Hailee Steinfeld, who is out to avenge her own murdered father. There is a slight difference here, in that Ree has a good-for-nothing father, while Mattie had an honorable one. Nonetheless, Mattie’s motivation is not that dissimilar from Ree’s; both must confront rough terrain and questionable characters to get what they want, and both suffer injuries as a result of it, to the point where they almost lose their lives. Both are helped along by strong male figures who have the physical toughness their own size can’t match.
There is much cause to celebrate both characters, and the writers and directors who brought them to life. Both adaptations should be appreciated for their ability to honor the original prose in the way they have. I’m seeing possible Scripter nominations for both.
Mostly, though, I’m relieved to see this tiny, but important, uptick for young girls — especially those who live in regions consumed by crystal meth; hopefully they will somehow find their way to Winter’s Bone so that they can find in Ree Dolly a hero. I can’t remember a year when two young girls were set to be the big heroes of film. That can’t be a bad thing.