The Sundance Grand Jury prizewinner for 2010, Debra Granik's Winter's Bone, marks a return to territory the American indie sector has traditionally mined rather well, staking out its patch within a region that will be unfamiliar to most viewers; in this case, the desolate Ozark mountains of south-west Missouri, a place of crystal meth and handguns, frontyards of junk enclosed by rusting barbed-wire fences. Heroine Ree (Jennifer Lawrence, above) is busy caring for her mute, incapacitated mother and schooling her younger siblings when a patrolman shows up on the front porch with the news her estranged meth-head father has gone AWOL while out on bail, awaiting possession charges.
There is, we gather, nothing new about this, except this time, there will be consequences: if Ree cannot bring pa in to appear before the court, the family will lose the home that's been put up as part of the bond agreement. Ree's subsequent quest will become a sore spot among her neighbours, most of whom elect to turn their backs whenever she approaches in search of help or information, some of whom prove actively obstructive, plagued as they are by the native suspicion that insists "talking only causes witnesses". Ree wants answers; what she gets are evasions or, worse, threats. She's out on her own, in other words, a mere babe in some wild, wild woods.
So too is Lawrence, one of the more memorable pieces in Guillermo Arriaga's mosaic-movie The Burning Plain last year, and positioned front and centre here in a role that dovetails Ree's position within her community with the actress's standing in her career: the fierce, unblinking gaze she demonstrates is unmistakably that of a young woman obliged to take on huge responsibilities at a perilously early stage in her own development. In an early sequence in Winter's Bone, we watch Ree wandering unchecked around her siblings' school, peering in through windows and doors at the classes she couldn't afford (or never got the chance) to complete; it's this curiosity, this desire for self-improvement, that draws us towards an otherwise tough, flinty character.
As, indeed, does the self-awareness Ree displays in the face of her neighbours' increasingly unnerving indifference. Training the youngsters in firing rifles and gutting squirrels, she's asked by a passing friend what the deal is with all the guns and knives, and her response - "Just teaching them a bit of survival" - seems to stem partly from the knowledge she is herself unlikely to be around for much longer, one way or another. This hierarchy of knowledge - a girl with much to learn in search of a man who, it transpires, knows too much - gives Winter's Bone a curious air of backwoods noir, as though Granik and co-writer Anne Rosellini (adapting Daniel Woodrell's novel) were seriously proposing the film as a stew of Deliverance and Chinatown, and their heroine a composite of Heidi, JJ Gittes and Nancy Drew.
The film even has its offbeat heavy in the form of Teardrop, Ree's uncle, though you'd hardly think to describe him as avuncular: instead, he's a twitchy dopefiend played with young Sam Shepard/Harry Dean Stanton-like intensity by Deadwood's John Hawkes. It's either a pointer through the woods or something of a red herring that the only other recognisable face in the cast should be Lynch's Laura Palmer: Sheryl Lee, prematurely aged and tired-seeming as one of pop's sometime lovers. In truth, Winter's Bone is too slow-burn and foursquare to much resemble Twin Peaks; we're supposed to admire its quiet craft rather than be struck by any leftfield artistry, and in this respect, it is at least a logical successor to 2008's Frozen River, a previous Sundance winner notable for its strong female lead and rooted sense of place. Granik, for her part, demonstrates a sure feel for texture and character, less so for narrative momentum - but the sequences that stay with you pinpoint the beauty and spirit of the forest, and also its latent, timeless sense of menace.
Winter's Bone is on selected release.