Best Actress: Curios
In 2008, Jennifer Lawrence played her first important film role in Guillermo Arriaga's The Burning Plain. She won the Marcello Mastroianni Award at the Venice Film Festival, the same prize for a young actor in a Competition film that Mila Kunis recently copped for Black Swan, prompting the same misplaced cries of "Ooooh, burn!" from internet denizens who thought the older co-stars had been somehow snubbed. In 2009, Lawrence and the two actors who played her younger brothers on The Bill Engvall Show won the trophy for Outstanding Young Performers in a TV Series at the Young Artist Awards. In 2010, she inhabited the lead role in every single scene of Sundance champion Winter's Bone and watched the film become a breakout arthouse success and critical darling. 2011 is six weeks old, and already she has scored her first Oscar nomination and managed to appear for the second year running in the Grand Prize winner at Sundance, a love-triangle story called Like Crazy. Oscar season, consumed as it's been by King's Speech vs. Social Network stories and gawping fascination with Natalie Portman's uterus, has not made much fuss over Lawrence's becoming the second youngest performer ever nominated for Best Actress. She has not yet turned 21, and having only recently turned 18 when The Burning Plain hit the Lido, that sets a pretty high standard for a span of time in which many Americans' proudest achievement is learning to swallow a fourth or fifth beer without falling over.
I wish all young actors the best, but sometimes, as with Whale Rider's Keisha Castle-Hughes, you can't help but wonder where they'll go from their big break. At other times, as with Lawrence, you strongly suspect you're witnessing the birth of a genuine career. I can't say that her work in The Burning Plain really braced me, partly because the movie locks her into a lot of reactive close-ups whose emotional tenor is already coerced by the script: she's shocked! she's dismayed! she's turned on! she didn't mean to do that! I credit Lawrence for totally avoiding histrionics in the part, which are tempting enough in almost any acting situation, but particularly, I'd imagine, in a film where the performers would need to muscle mighty hard to stand out from the constricting, ostentatious structure. She succeeds more in seeming serious about her job and serving the film than in selling me on a layered characterization. Frankly, I'm more impressed by the two episodes I've seen of Bill Engvall, which is sort of Roseanne without the gumption, truculence, or encroaching insanity, but plenty of conservative amiability. In one episode, Lawrence's character has to sell weenies at Hot Dog World in the local mall, so as to learn a lesson about making your own money, so you can buy the things you want, which in this case is a trendy purse. In the other, she is cool-headedly shopping for her prom dress and wondering why her mother seems so flagrantly over-invested in what she thinks of as a fun night but not a portal into promised ecstasies. From the options available on iTunes, I picked these episodes out of a bemused curiosity as to what Ree Dolly would make of a girl whose big problems are wanting a chic handbag and trying to calm her Mom down about prom. It wasn't until later that I realized how seldom the same girl would find herself in those two scenarios, crazy for Kate Spade, blasé about a senior soirée, but Lawrence finds a gradient of being pretty, popular, and aspirationally on-trend without being a tragic dupe of girly-girl culture. Better than that, she's funny, and can turn on a dime from pushing back impressively against her parents (her Lauren is halfway between a Becky and a Darlene, in the Roseanne cosmology) and selling a verbal, physical, or attitudinal joke. I wouldn't want to make too big a thing of Bill Engvall, but it's honest, proficient work; I believed that the people on the laugh track would really have chuckled, if they existed. I also decided it was not a coincidence that the writers kept giving her sparring scenes with the adults, and virtually none with the younger brothers. Jennifer skews adult.
Ree Dolly in Winter's Bone offers a very strong rendering of a hugely promising and hugely unusual character, a teenager in the Ozarks who is more or less the parent of her much younger brother and sister; the caretaker of her virtually catatonic mother, a mountain-country cousin of Allison Janney's suburban zombie-wife in American Beauty; a serious, functional, necessarily crafty adult; and a dogged if unwitting coerced detective in search of her missing, meth-addicted father. Lawrence never quite settles for us whether Ree loves, likes, dislikes, or despises her father, or something in between, or a little of all of it. That's no wonder, since Ree herself is so hooked into the moment-to-moment, hour-to-hour, day-to-day exigencies of a situation that she doesn't have a lot of time to ponder things or people in the abstract. I suspect the question "How do you feel about your Dad?" could border on the meaningless for her. Even "How do you feel about Uncle Teardrop?" which opens a whole other can of worms, might seem banal next to "Will he help you?" or "Will he hurt you?" Ree's all about the practicals, though occasionally she admits a nascent feeling that transcends simple exigency; whether of fright or of fondness, the experience appears to unnerve her a little. Maybe she feels she can't afford it? Even when she's walking from trailer to trailer, through woods and brush, she looks like she's mulling what she'll need to do when she arrives, not stepping back to contemplate her position or her people in the abstract, much less to feel sorry for herself about any of it.
The mannered dialogue in Winter's Bone, however directly transferred from the novel, and however interestingly frictional with the location photography and the utterly candid performances, does present some hurdles to Lawrence, as to many of her castmates. At moments when I have trouble believing the performance or the film, even on a folkloric or emotional level, it's usually because of something she or a scene partner is forced to say, or a reaction they have to muster, somewhat rigidly, toward something that beggars credulity. But especially in the less narratively driven scenes, skinning squirrels, reviewing school lessons with her brother and sister, cautioning them out of being fearful of the world, or just figuring out what to make for dinner, she's a can-do, casually riveting presence, even less self-conscious of the camera than she seemed in Burning Plain. She cracks Ree's carapace in very affecting ways during the rowboat climax, finding a heartbreaking poignancy that feels distinct from everything that is already macabre about that somewhat grandiose scene, and thereby recuperating a culminating moment thta might easily have felt a bit too much. You'd imagine that her errand at that moment would prompt a desperate crisis in almost everyone, so it's a credit to Lawrence's resolve and her firm boundary-drawing elsewhere in the movie that we're actually astonished to see her crack. But I don't want to sound too stingy about the dialogue scenes, either. An early trip to the neighbor's to see if that woman can stable a horse for her shows you just how many tones and objectives Lawrence can convey at once. My favorite sequence in the movieRee's tête-à-tête with the resolute but compassionate U.S. Army recruiteris a jewel of communication and character revelation, in spoken and unspoken ways.
So, best of luck on that career, Jen. Your next public outing in The Beaver is a likely win-win for you, even though a lot of your colleagues stand to lose a fair bit. If people like it, or like you in it, their positive notices will have a sheen of surprise, given how dire the predispositions against the movie have become. If they don't like it, not a single person will blame you. If they like you but not the movie, they may feel compelled to single you out, retrieving you from going down with such a complex PR disaster of an already tough-sell project. Speaking of tough, congrats, too, on the thrillingly frank, no-guff performances you've dished out as yourself through the needless onslaught of awards season interviews. I've rarely seen an actress, especially a young actress, give an interviewer as hard a time as you did to David Poland, while seeming genuinely nonplussed at the inanity of several questions, instead of just bratty or difficult. Your bullshit meter, while acting and also on your press tours, seems like a pretty formidable instrument. All the more credit to you that, as keen as it is, all your other instruments seem comparably fine-tuned. FAQs / Leave a Comment
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