It is a common and justifiable complaint that movies rarely include strong female characters. Of course, the validity of such a complaint depends in large part on a person's definition of a strong female character or, more precisely, the definition of strength as a character trait. Today, a go to example of feminine strength in a work of popular fiction is Lisbeth Salander of the Millennium Trilogy novels and Swedish films. By such a definition, though, a strong female character is simply one who acts as a stereotypical male character would, solving her problems with violence over all, and technology when greater subtlety is required. Strong, then, reduced simply to male.
In Winter's Bone, the 2010 Grand Jury Prize winner at Sundance, we are introduced to seventeen year-old Ree, played by Jennifer Lawrence. Ree is raising her two young siblings since her father, a meth cooker, has vanished. Her mother is physically present but mentally absent. Ree feeds her sister and brother, instructs them in both academic and more practical subjects, cares for them. The weight of her responsibilities is visible in the set of her features, but the children are happy.
Then comes "the Law" to inform her that her father has jumped bail and that he'd put the house up as his bond. If he doesn't show up to court, they'll lose the house. Ree promises to find him, and bring him back. Her search leads her from one dangerous encounter to another as she hunts down and questions the few people who might know where her father has gone, people like her father, criminals. She doesn't do this because she has something to prove. She doesn't dress or behave in a way designed to make her appear tough, she simply is tough because the alternative, not being tough enough, would mean ruin or death, her own or that of her siblings. Ree is a strong female character. And not a dragon tattoo in sight.
Winter's Bone, based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell, is not only the portrait of a single woman, but an exploration of a culture and society rarely shown in movies. The type of story told here usually takes place in Harlem or East L.A., maybe Miami, but this one unfolds in the quietly menacing back woods of the Ozarks. It is a fascinating world and one that is beautifully captured by the writer-director, Debra Granik.
Jennifer Lawrence, who will soon be appearing in the next X-Men movie, has been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her role as Ree. She will be up against Natalie Portman, among others. Did she do a better job than Portman? That's a difficult question, but I will say this: Lawrence's performance was far more subtle, more nuanced. As Ree she manages to be tough as a coffin nail while maintaining a necessary vulnerability; necessary because, without its influence, her siblings would be sure to grow up cynical and jaded. It is that perfect balance of toughness and vulnerability, above all, that is Ree's ultimate strength.