It’s been 10 years since Jennifer Lawrence became a household name in the aftermath of her unlikely Oscar nomination for Winter’s Bone, a $2 million indie film about a young woman struggling to make ends meet in the Ozarks. Directed by Debra Granik, the film blew critics away when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2010, with special attention paid to Lawrence, then still relatively unknown. Her appearance on the red carpet in February 2011 sealed the deal: Wearing a tomato-red bodycon tank dress by Calvin Klein, her blonde hair loose and in waves, with only a bejeweled clutch and subtle bracelet to accessorize the look, Lawrence candidly told reporters that she had scarfed down a Philly cheesesteak that afternoon. A star was born.
On the eve of her 30th birthday, Lawrence is now one of Hollywood’s most well-known celebrities, as famous for her candid and gregarious public persona as her magnetic on-screen presence. And yet, it’s been more than a year since we last saw her on screen in a new project. In 2017, on the tail of a series of box office and critical disappointments, Lawrence decided to take a break from the constant grind of production, focusing instead on her work with RepresentUs, a bipartisan grassroots organization, and her relationship with husband Cooke Maroney. At the time, it felt like she was searching for a way to distance herself from the J.Law personality that had made her a beloved internet figure — as well as one of the highest-paid actresses in the business — in order to pivot to a more versatile and interesting career. Something, perhaps, that looks more like Winter’s Bone.
Nothing showcases Lawrence’s acting talent quite like her first leading role, now streaming on HBO Max. Absent the hype and trappings of celebrity, she plays 17-year-old Ree Dolly without a hint of vanity. Tough almost to the point of sullenness, she’s the unmistakable precursor to Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist from the Hunger Games franchise that Lawrence would so famously embody just a few years later. In Winter’s Bone, sheholds her own against phenomenal character actors like John Hawkes and Dale Dickey, fiercely conveying a young woman who’s had to learn the hard way that life won’t do her any favors.
There’s a scene in Winter’s Bone that guts me every single time I watch it. Informed by local law officials that she’s about to lose her house, Ree is desperate to find a way to support her younger brother and sister. Her mother is sick and absent, her father, a known methamphetamine cook, is missing. Lonely, scared and out of options, she decides to enlist in the United States Army for the $40,000 a sign-up bonus. The induction officer takes one look at her split lip and black eye — the result of a fight just a few nights before — and gently urges her to reconsider: Five years is a long commitment to make in a moment of despair. In the end, it doesn’t even matter. At 17, she’s too young to enlist without her parents’ consent.
Up until that moment, Granik has kept Ree’s surroundings muted, the lighting dim and bleak. Seeing her trudge through barns and bars in her oversized parka as she searches for any trace of her dad, it’s easy to buy her tough-as-nails persona. Even when she’s cornered by a group of older women who brutally beat her up, you get the feeling she can give as good as she gets. But in the harsh glare of her high school gym’s fluorescent rays, Ree looks just like what she is: a child who is scared and alone, weighed down with the heavy burden of caring for people even younger and more alone than she is.
It’s the quintessential Lawrence performance, one that tapped into the raw potential of her talent before it was fully groomed by years in the business. She’s unpolished here, plucked from relative obscurity by a director who recognized her potential as a sitcom actor from The Bill Engvall Show, and let her spread her wings. Maybe that’s why it’s a role that continues to echo through her career as she carves out her identity as an actor. Lawrence may have lost the Oscar to Natalie Portman back in 2011, but Ree was certainly on my mind as she tripped up the stairs to accept her gold statue for her portrayal of another — different — tough broad in the Silver Linings Playbook.
2021 promised to be Lawrence’s comeback year — she currently has four projects in various stages of production, including Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up, Paolo Sorrentino’s Mob Girl, an untitled A24 project directed by Lila Neugebauer, and a turn as Elizabeth Holmes in the upcoming film adaptation of Bad Blood. Unfortunately, the on-going COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench in the best-laid Hollywood plans, delaying releases indefinitely. It may be awhile before we get a new Lawrence performance to devour and dissect. But in the meantime, there’s always Winter’s Bone.