When it came out this summer, "Winter's Bone" was a favorite among art-house filmgoers. But the character-driven story set amid Ozark poverty has remained off the radar of much of the American mainstream -- a bit ironically, since it's a story as much about America as any big-budget Hollywood blockbuster.
That could change this fall, and well, winter, providing the film gets an Oscar nomination for best picture. Awards attention of course doesn't much matter to the mainstream filmgoer for a movie that's already a populist hit; it's unlikely that Oscar love would make many more people take notice of "Toy Story 3." But for a small independent movie that can't afford to market like the big boys, awards attention -- and all the free media that comes with it -- is a coveted substitute.
Pundits have been divided over whether Debra Granik's "Bone," with Jennifer Lawrence earning raves as precocious teenager, will make the cut. But one encouraging sign for fans of the mystery-cum-drama: It led all films in Spirit Awards nominations this morning.
Leading the Spirits has at times had a popular-in-Canada feel to it. (In 2007, Todd Field's quickly forgotten Bob Dylan enigma "I'm Not There" garnered the most nominations.)
But since the motion picture academy expanded the Oscar best picture category from five to 10 slots last season, being the Spirits' darling now may mean a lot more. The Spirits suggest there's a spot for you on the Oscar best picture list, and all the benefits that come with it.
At least that's what happened for last year's Spirits nomination-grabber "Precious," which went on to be nominated for best picture and get a lot more attention as a result. (For more on the snubs and surprises at the Spirits this season -- including the overlooking of "Blue Valentine" star Ryan Gosling and "The Kids Are All Right" star Julianne Moore -- please see our colleagues' take over at The Times' Awards Tracker blog.)
It's unlikely "Winter's Bone" -- without the backing of an Oprah and the same level of buzz as "Precious" -- can ultimately achieve the crossover popularity that film did. But "Precious" does show that a story of an American underclass has caught on with us before. It even got the ultimate compliment: a running gag on "30 Rock" (with the movie-within-a-show "Hard to Watch"). If things break right, it may not be long before Jenna Maroni and Jack Donaghy are riffing on Ree Dolly and Teardrop.
Photo: Jennifer Lawrence in "Winter's Bone." Credit: Roadside Attractions