RATING |

I'll admit I was prepared to hate "Winter's Bone," a movie that has the trappings of the classic art-house smug-fest.

You know, a Sundance-endorsed parade of backward red-state curiosities trotted out for the self-satisfaction of urban sophisticates, cinematic appetizer to a night of Malbec and tapas and Sarah Palin jokes.

"Winter's Bone" did indeed win the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and does indeed feature a scene of a mountain girl teachin' her kin how to shoot and cook squirrel. "You want it fried, or in a stew?"

What are the odds a movie can overcome a line like that?

I don't know, but "Winter's Bone" surmounts them in style, overcoming a kind of fish-eyed wonderment at mountain people to justify its place as one of the year's most widely praised movies.

A good deal of the credit goes to actress Jennifer Lawrence, playing the kind of character you start out quietly rooting for, then end up backing, like some World Cup soccer hooligan.

She's Ree, an Ozark teen with a psychologically absent mother (unrecovered from a nervous breakdown) and physically absent father - on the lam from the law. He's due for a court appearance, and if he misses it, he forfeits his bail bond and the house that shelters Ree and her two younger, helpless siblings.

And so she sets out to find him, a hyper-dangerous odyssey through the local countryside and culture, lately dominated by a methamphetamine trade that has added a new level of explosiveness to more ancient family rivalries.

Ree is young, female and vulnerable, and we come to see that she has no standing among male-dominated local families (including her own), something that doesn't deter her for a moment.

Her temperament, her own sense of responsibility to her younger brother and sister, have made her fierce and fearless - of the law, of her elders, of the drug clans who may be hiding her father or merely his corpse.

Her courage and selflessness make her almost hypnotically likable and lead to a terrific scene wherein an exasperated adversary looks at the beaten, bloodied Ree and says, "What are we going to do with you?"

"Help me," she says. "Or kill me."

Maybe it's the steady diet of zombified mumblecore heroines or skeletal avatars of Cosmo-quaffing entitlement movies, but this girl is refreshing to the point of revolutionary.

And the movie behind her ain't bad, neither. Writer-director Debra Granik adapted "Winter's Bone" from a novel by Missouri writer Daniel Woodrell and spent much time and energy trying to get the cultural details right. Her movie never stops surprising you with its willingness to make people decent and human (a scene in an Army recruitment center comes to mind).

There are also meaty supporting roles for actors who get a chance in this independent to step up and show off a bit - John Hawkes, as Ree's hard-nosed uncle, is a standout.

There is also something resonant about "Winter's Bone" that make it more than just this year's "Frozen River." There is, at work in "Bone," a sense of decay, corruption and betrayal, of one generation failing its successor. That theme, fuzzily lurking in other movies, is brought into sharp focus here via Ree, a 17-year-old whose only inheritance is gumption.