Hillbilly meth labs - not exactly

Debra Granik

's world.

A filmmaker who lives in a Manhattan high-rise, was raised in the D.C. suburbs, and spent a good chunk of her life in Boston ("I'm a product of the Northeast Corridor," she says), Granik nonetheless found herself, a few years back, taken by a novel set in the hollers of the Missouri Ozarks, where families struggling with poverty were cooking methamphetamines in shacks and trailers.

The book, Daniel Woodrell's Winter's Bone, follows a 17-year-old who must track down her father, a guy mixed up with drugs and hill-country thugs, and who used his house for a bail bond and then took off, disappeared. If the girl, Ree, can't find him, then she, her siblings, and their mother (who's basically catatonic) will be kicked out, left homeless.

The quest to find her deadbeat dad is part detective story, packed with suspense, teeming with tight-lipped women, backcountry outlaws, wary kin.

"I read it in one sitting," says Granik. "All of a sudden some strange line was crossed, because in these fragmented times that's a true rare occurrence for me. And I was just immediately delighted by this female protagonist - I needed to know how this girl was going to survive."

And then Granik realized that not only did she need to know, she needed to bring Winter's Bone to the screen. The grand jury prize winner at January's Sundance Film Festival, Winter's Bone - opening Friday at the Ritz Five - is a taut piece of suspense, and a film that feels authentic to the, well, bone.

"It's a story coming from a hardscrabble land," says Granik, 47, in town recently to host an early screening of her film. "People have very multivalent, very complex definitions of hill culture and hillbillies - even people who identify themselves as hillbillies will talk about that. There's a tradition of settling things among yourselves, and making things among yourselves, and also the idea and the attraction to never being told that you can't do something. And also being forced by circumstances to find ways to make money, both legal and illegal."

And for all the "heinousness" that comes with methamphetamines - the toxic chemicals, the easy addiction, the devastation to body and mind - Granik says that making and marketing the stuff in the Ozark woods is part of a venerable tradition.

"The moonshine/marijuana/meth continuum is definitely part of that," she says. "It's a history of very extreme and intense things going together, and a history of finding a means to make a living. . . . But the blanket over all of it would be generational poverty. Generational poverty is behind it all."

Granik honed her directing skills making health and safety training films for trade unions. In her 30s, she went back to school, to the graduate film program at NYU. Her thesis short, Snake Feed, won a lot of attention - and several awards. Her first feature, Down to the Bone - another tale of chemical dependency - won her the directing prize at the 2004 Sundance fest. It also brought considerable notice to its star, Vera Farmiga. Talk to just about every director who has cast Farmiga since - Martin Scorsese for The Departed, Jason Reitman for Up in the Air among them - and they'll tell you they saw, and were blown away by, Farmiga's work in Granik's movie.

("It's been really exciting and a big pleasure to see her be able to diversify and take on bigger things," Granik says about her star. "But I still don't think she gets the stuff that really taps into what she's capable of.")

Winter's Bone may prove the same sort of launching pad for Jennifer Lawrence, the now-19-year-old who stars as Ree Dolly. Although Lawrence had a key supporting role in Guillermo Arriaga's intense The Burning Plain a few years ago, in Winter's Bone she is in practically every scene, and utterly believable in every scene - as Ree defies the edicts of her clan, as she doubts her own strengths and ability, as she wavers between adolescence and adulthood, and as the search for her father takes her from one scary place to another.

"There was a lot of pressure to cast someone in that age range 'of value,' " Granik says, meaning a name like, say, Dakota Fanning. Granik was even asked to meet with actresses in their mid-20s.

"It was getting humiliating," she recalls. "And at some point we had to say, 'This shouldn't have to be.' "

Finally, after working with her casting directors, Granik had the list of possible Rees down to a half-dozen young women.

"In the end, I think what really made me feel confident to collaborate with Jennifer was that she was from Kentucky," Granik says. "She was not from [Ree's] class background. But I loved her. When she read the lines, I felt like I was hearing stuff that I could believe in. And I felt, also, that just certain things about the landscape were not going to be too foreign to her, and she had the hunger. That's very important."

Granik and her producing partner, Anne Rosellini (they wrote the adaptation of Woodrell's novel together, too), are developing several new projects. One was born out of spending time with the musicians - the fiddlers and banjo players and singers - featured in Winter's Bone. Another is an adaptation of a novel with the word bone in the title. (Because the deal hasn't been locked, Granik is reluctant to say which Bone book, exactly.)

"I was approached with this property and I couldn't believe it, no one could believe it," says the director of Down to the Bone and Winter's Bone.

"People could call it the Osteo Trilogy," she says, chuckling. "But it's OK. Everything about the word, the concept, what it is, how it plays out in literature and metaphor. . . . It's not surprising that that word has a frequent application."

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/