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Jesse Kornbluth Headshot

Why Did They Choose Jennifer Lawrence to Star in Hunger Games? See Winter's Bone

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Days before the opening of The Hunger Games, ticket pre-sales were so massive that more than 2,000 showings were sold out.

We seem to be looking at something more than a film -- a phenomenon.

We are definitely looking at the launch of a major actress -- Jennifer Lawrence.

If you've seen Winter's Bone, you know exactly who I mean: the actress who was 17-year-old Ree Dolly in what I have loudly argued was the best movie of 2010. Other reviewers agreed. As did Hollywood: Winter's Bone scored four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. Audiences? Most of you had no chance to see it in theaters; this was a low-budget film, playing mostly in art houses in major cities.

Now Winter's Bone is a DVD, and, however it comes into your home, I'm hopeful that many more of you will be able to experience it. To buy the DVD from Amazon costs $10.23 -- less than a movie ticket in New York. Or you could buy a digital version from Amazon for a few dollars more and watch it now.

If I had a kid who was off to see Hunger Games -- and I do -- I'd suggest a viewing of Winter's Bone afterward. This is not to disparage Hunger Games -- the child and I have been reading the book together, and I'll be the custodial adult who escorts her to the movie. Really, it's to supplement Hunger Games.

As I understand it, Hunger Games imagines what life would be like if "reality" shows were played for higher stakes -- kids, in an arena, fighting to the death. (Yes, really, that's the set-up. And although I'm confident Jennifer Lawrence, as Katniss, doesn't die in the first reel, I'm quite sure my heart will be in my throat for the last hour.)

In a way, Hunger Games is a bookend to Winter's Bone -- the stakes feel as urgent to Rae Dolly as they do to Katniss. Here, she's a poor, rural girl whose family lives on the edge of financial disaster; her family is losing its home. Ree ought to be going to school and getting on with her life, but her father is gone and her mother is not competent and it's fallen to her to take care of the younger kids and, well, pretty much everything.

"Winter's Bone" is set in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, and that's not a pretty place in winter: cramped trailers, plastic stretched over the windows, old trucks in the yard. In American movies, we don't often see how badly some of us really live, but you will in Winter's Bone, and you feel the grittiness of these lives. All in the service of authenticity -- the director, Debra Granik, set a lot of scenes in the homes of the locals. Shot digitally, it's raw and unvarnished, like Hollywood never is.

The story is simple -- good thrillers usually are. Ree's father, Jessup Dolly, was busted a while back for cooking methamphetamine. To make bond, he put up his family's house and 300 acres of virgin timber. Now his court date is a week away -- and he's nowhere to be found. The local lawman comes out to warn Ree that the Dollys are in danger of losing their home.

Ree's mother has suffered a breakdown and so, as in the best movies, the main character is on a mission. Ree must walk a knife edge; she can't turn in her father, all she can do is ask for help in finding him. And the only people who can help her? His relatives. Some of them make the most addictive drug on the planet. All of them don't understand why she can't remember she's a Dolly -- "bred and buttered," as she says -- and just stop. As they say, "Talking just causes witnesses."

In its dramatic revelations, its dark surprises, and its no-nonsense portrayal of The Way We Are, the film feels almost like a Greek tragedy -- or an American Western. The trailer gives you a sense of the stakes and the seriousness:

There's a good reason this film won the Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Films and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance -- every detail is right. Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Ree, comes from Kentucky. John Hawkes, last seen in Martha Marcy May Marlene, is Jessup's brother; he's also from the region and looks so much like a member of The Band that it's eerie. Much of the cast is local and non-professional -- and, no offense, but they look like people who might make crank, who could scare the shit out of you at traffic lights with a sidelong glance, who would quiet you once with "I already told you to shut up with my mouth" and let their hands do the talking after that.

I've never seen a movie that's both painful to watch and impossible to turn away from. The scene in which the kids must deal with the fact that the meat for dinner is going to be squirrel. Ree's desperate attempt to convince an Army recruiter -- who's played by an Army recruiter -- to let her enlist for five years so she can collect the government's $40,000 bonus. And a climax so remarkable, so distant from anything you know as reality, that you'll never forget it.

It won't hurt a smart teenager -- and is there another kind? -- to see Winter's Bone. It won't hurt you either.

[Cross-posted from HeadButler.com]