This isn’t Laura Ingalls’ Ozarks. These mountains are the present-day home to Ree Dolly, the adolescent heroine of the indie darling “Winter’s Bone.” Hers is a backwoods place frozen in time, where folks have long, straggly hair, dirt under their fingernails and soiled clothes.

This isn’t Laura Ingalls’ Ozarks. These mountains are the present-day home to Ree Dolly, the adolescent heroine of the indie darling “Winter’s Bone.” Hers is a backwoods place frozen in time, where folks have long, straggly hair, dirt under their fingernails and soiled clothes. Faces are hardened with deep lines. And in keeping with Missouri being the meth lab capital of the United States, most of the characters are addicts. One way or another, though, they all share the same blood.


The film is based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell. It’s a grim, character-driven story that reflects on the crank culture in the Ozarks and its impact on families. Jennifer Lawrence shines as Ree, a tough 17-year-old on a quest to find her meth-cooking daddy, Jessup. He’s jumped bail and the family is about to lose its home because of his indiscretions. The caretaker of her two younger siblings and ailing mother, Ree visits a string of neighbors, desperate in her search to find him. Unknowingly, Ree has poked a sleeping lion when it comes to who knows her daddy, and how and why they know him. And his enemies, most of whom share the same blood, take it out on Ree.


You can forgive a film like “Winter’s Bone” its faults when fascinating characters and inspired performances prevail over a weak plot that unfolds s-l-o-w-l-y. After all, Ree can only walk so fast and call on so many people in the week she has to find Pops before the house is seized. But just when you start to drift and lose interest, one of the characters does or says something to draw you back in the mix. The dialogue alone makes the movie worth its wile. It’s so distinct to the region that it sounds poetic – “I got these two kids and my mom to tend.”


Writer-director Debra Granik introduced Vera Farmiga (“Up in the Air”) to the mainstream six years ago with “Down to the Bone.” Now she’s doing the same for Lawrence, who gives a breakout performance as the hardscrabble, yet vulnerable, Ree. A fresh-faced beauty, no matter how much they tried to ugly her up, Lawrence reminds me of a cross between Julia Stiles and Michelle Williams.


But Lawrence isn’t the cream of the crop. It gets better. John Hawkes, the shopkeeper from television’s “Deadwood,” unleashes a totally believable turn as Ree’s uncle, Teardrop. It’s a performance that sticks with you long after the credits roll. He makes you root for his Teardrop, a grisly, violent man on the outside but tender and loyal inside. When the going gets tough – and it always does in the desolate mountains – Teardrop blows a line, and you don’t hate him for it.


Dale Dickey’s Merab, wife of the local hillbilly “mafia” boss, is the last woman you want to cross. In one scene she’s giving out coffee, in another she’s pounding someone’s face into the ground. In the film’s climactic scene on a rowboat in the dead of night, Dickey is never more chilling.


The characters are well-drawn and their portrayals are as intense as they are unsettling. Nothing they do or say feels false or contrived, even if the story teeters on cliche. Granik infuses her film with enough mountain-life grit – such as skinning and gutting (gross!) squirrels for stew – that you can forgive the thin premise. Granik, and co-writer Anne Rosellini, stop just short of hillbilly banality, leaving you wishing they had hung a little more meat on their “Bone.”


Reach Patriot Ledger writer Dana Barbuto at dbarbuto@ledger.com.


WINTER’S BONE (R for some drug material, language and violent content.) Cast includes Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Dale Dickey. 3 stars out of 4.