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'Prize' captures family drama vividly

Julianne Moore has never looked as relaxed as she does in ''The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio." This is a major accomplishment, since she's playing mother to 10 children and wife to one very childish man.

Evelyn Ryan lives in the movie's titular burg during the 1950s and 1960s. While her husband, Kelly (Woody Harrelson), goes to work in a factory, she runs the house, a modest little nest that seems like a shoebox for a family of 12, but she makes it work. After most of the day's duties have been performed, Evelyn sits in front of the television set with the kids and thinks up little ditties to enter in the sponsors' jingle-writing contests.

Her home is full of winnings that include a much disliked storage freezer. She's also won a couple of trips, a few cars, and, when it really matters, cash. Still, the Ryans, it seems, are always on the brink of eviction, with Kelly drinking away his earnings in pitiful binges of outraged emasculation.

There's not much to the film's story, but the characterization of a family's life is vivid and rich: We see the kids grow up and wonder if the Ryans' marriage will survive Kelly's swelling insecurity.

Jane Anderson directed and adapted the movie from a memoir by one of Evelyn's daughters. Clearly, Anderson takes Evelyn seriously. Jingle-writing is not a knack. It's a vocation and a skill. But Anderson, whose previous films -- ''When Billie Beat Bobby," ''Normal" -- have all been TV movies of above-average intelligence, doesn't hold Evelyn's homemaking in contempt. While raising a family of 12 might not be a calling, Anderson certainly wants a modern audience to understand that it is a job. (We never do see Kelly at work.)

It's the Ryans' second oldest girl, Terry, who wrote the memoir and was rightly nicknamed ''Tuff." She is the most outspoken of the children (although they all seem equally fearful of and exasperated with their father), and in challenging her mother's tolerance of Kelly, she's meant to be a voice of contemporary reason. (The girl who plays her, Ellary Porterfield, is touching.) But, shrewdly, Anderson doesn't allow Harrelson to play the character as a monster; he's sad and redeemable, and Evelyn believes in him long after he's given up on himself.

If this woman sounds too good to be true, she is. But aren't all great mothers? Evelyn is presented as the quintessence of kindness, as impossibly happy. She lives on the bright side. But some days are overcast, and the better we get to know her the easier it becomes to spot the clouds. She's lonely, too, which is why her discovery of another group of jingle-writing women, who meet 85 miles away at Laura Dern's house, thrills her so: She's not alone.

''Far From Heaven" and ''The Hours" demonstrated that Moore is comfortable in these period housewife parts. Sometimes, you can see her thinking about the incongruity between her modernity and her vintage surroundings, until she appears to be having an out-of-body experience, as she did in ''The Hours." This, actually, is the problem with Moore in too many movies: Her tense manner, churning brain, and skill often get in the way of our hearts.

Part of the reason Moore is so at ease in ''Prize Winner" may be that she's working with a woman director. Anderson is the rare filmmaker who doesn't want to use the actress as an instrument or to exploit her independent-movie cachet. She has freed Moore to be what she hasn't been with many directors: credibly human.

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