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A winter’s tale

Still, quiet and tense, Winter's Bone may not be an uplifting night at the movies, but what it lacks in cheer, it makes up for in graceful melancholy.

Based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell, it tells the story of 17-year-old Ree Dolly, a girl who has one week to find her crystal meth-dealing father, who has disappeared after using the family home to secure bail.

Faced with being turned out into the Ozark Woods of southern Missouri, Ree risks her own life to save her family by challenging her redneck kin's code of silence.

It's the second feature film from Debra Granik, the director of 2004's Down To The Bone. And just as that picture helped Vera Farmiga to stardom (she was Oscar-nominated this year for her role opposite George Clooney in Up In The Air) Winter's Bone is sure to boost the career of 20-year-old Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Ree.

Kentucky-born Lawrence was discovered by a talent agent while still at high school and has since dedicated herself to her career. She's already starred opposite Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger in The Burning Plain, has just finished filming The Beaver with Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster, and has also been cast in the much anticipated X-Men: First Class. It's little surprise The New York Times has already ranked her one of its 50 People To Watch -- and that's before the Oscar buzz for her performance in Winter's Bone reaches full throttle.

She speaks with a low, husky voice and, tall and poised, has the demeanour of someone 10 years older. But then this is the girl who once said: "I've had a career since I was 14, I pay my own rent, I live on my own and I'm not going to have a lot in common with somebody who's my age. I know I sound like a jerk, but what are we going to talk about? Prom? I didn't go to prom. I'm working all the time."

Wearing jeans and a voluminous yellow blouse, she tucks herself under a blanket beside Winter's Bone director Debra Granik and there seems to be a genuine affection between the two of them.

Granik says she received an "avalanche" of scripts that depicted a certain type of broken woman after the success of Down To The Bone, itself a story about a New York mother's attempt to kick her drug habit for the sake of her children.

"It was like, 'Wow, please [give me a break]'. In the next year, will there be one female that arrives in a script that's actually a happening human being, or is everyone going to be distraught, deformed or a dud?"

Winter's Bone stood out, she says, because "it was a real mystery where you truly care about the person, and you wonder how this girl is going to find her way after being warned and intimidated.

"The idea of danger is something that humans are always interested in," she adds. "If you care about someone and how they're going to survive or navigate a dangerous situation, it detonates this compelling bomb."

Lawrence says it was Ree's strength of character that compelled her to the script. "I think it was her tenacity and the fact that she made her own ending out of something that wasn't really possible.

"I admire that in people, so obviously I admire that in her character," Lawrence continues.

The film was shot in southern Missouri, in a rotting corner of the US rarely seen on the big screen, but Granik says it was imperative they filmed where the book was set: "For author Daniel Woodrell, his region is his muse," she says, and explains she spent a week with Woodrell visiting the creeks and hills that influenced him.

Granik, who herself grew up in an affluent area of Washington, admits there were many challenges in working far from home.

"Firstly, ways of communicating differ. There are different protocols, different ways of asking and answering, so we didn't antagonise people," she says.

The term 'hillbilly' doesn't allow for much nuance, something Granik was more than aware of.

"You can't go to an area with such an intense history and lore and not lock horns with symbols, cliche, stereotypes and sensitivities," she says.

She adds that even a banjo is still a loaded symbol, but on her visits to southern Missouri, it kept "popping up in the most lyrical and alluring ways".

"Ultimately, the banjo found its way into the film, offering notes of hope and perseverance." A fitting symbol for Winter's Bone itself.

Winter's Bone is released in cinemas on Friday, September 17