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Hillbilly Elegy

Released 2020. Director: Ron Howard

GROWING UP UNDER THE ERRATIC AND VOLATILE PARENTING OF HIS SINGLE MOTHER, J.D. VANCE has a tumultuous upbringing but he manages to graduate from Yale Law School and break through the cycle of poverty that has enslaved his family for generations. This movie, based on his own memoir of the same title, attempts to show us what happened.

J.D.’s family are hill folk from Jackson County. There is no question his mother Bev loves him and his sister though she doesn’t always use the best way to show it. Bev has a problem with drinking and drugs. She probably also has undiagnosed mental health issues which causes her mood swings and when she’s tipped over the balance, ther’s no telling what she’ll do, like the time she could have killed J.D. with her mad driving on a country road. J.D. is a child wrecked with anxiety.

As J.D. grows into his teenage years, he begins to slide after moving in to live with the family of the new man his mum just married. That’s when his grandmother, whom they call Mamaw, intervenes and hauls J.D. back to live with her and makes sure he goes to school, does his homework, and stays away from bad influence. Mamaw relies on charity to survive but she makes sure her grandson is fed.

The two actresses playing J.D.’s mother and Mamaw respectively, dominate the movie, as can be reasonably expected from Amy Adams and Glenn Close, who have a total of 13 Oscar nominations between them. No mean feat.

Adams is a versatile performer, as sophisticated in Nocturnal Animals as she is crass in The Fighter. Bev is a woman trapped in her own limited capacity for change and messy approach to raising kids. Adams understands her character and manages to make Bev just sympathetic enough that we believe she’s genuine.

Close disappears convincingly into the oversized t-shirt and big glasses to become Mamaw, with a foul mouth, cigarette between her fingers and don’t-mess-with-me eyes. But this is more than merely a physical transformation. Mamaw’s personality puts everyone else in the shadows and Close walks a fine line not to lean towards being a caricature.

These two women should’ve been the heart of the movie, but they’re not. Instead, the hero is J.D. and the focus is his arrival at the cusp of a dream job, with a supportive girlfriend and a shiny future. Which is unfortunate because J.D. is a boring character next to his mother and grandmother.

Gabriel Basso struggles as the adult J.D. acting alongside the two women who play the moulding forces in his formative years. But the weak link is Owen Asztalos who plays young J.D., whose acting is uneven and not always convincing, sometimes you wonder if those were the best takes Ron Howard got out of him.

Howard’s most notable movies are often remembered for their performances. Think of Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind), Tom Hanks and Gary Sinise (Apollo 13), Michael Sheen and Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon), Paul Giamatti and Russell Crowe again (Cinderella Man). Hillbilly Elegy is no different and I’m sure it will end up with one or two Oscar nominations for acting. The thing I find with his movies is despite the award-worthy performances, the movie on the whole is less than the sum of its acting parts.

In the case of Hillbilly Elegy, it is missing a sense of emotional cohesiveness to take the movie to a deserving uplift when we come to the end. We are meant to see the triumph of a young man over adversity, yet J.D.’s success comes across as self-congratulatory rather than inspirational, which I suspect is the original intention.

The screen treatment of Bev in particular feels exploitative in hammering home the notion of a bad mother. We’re told in her younger days Bev was a bright student like her son, but her path was derailed, early pregnancy and drugs being a couple of the reasons. Amy Adams gives an impressive performance but it’s mostly on a surface level because the story chooses to depict characters like Bev superficially. Vanessa Taylor’s adaptation of Vance’s book is a tour of hillbilly culture without insight. I haven’t read the book so I cannot say if my comparison is entirely fair. I would imagine Vance gives a deeper understanding of the family and circumstances he grew up in.

Hillbilly Elegy the movie tells a narrow-focus story when it should have seized the opportunity to draw a larger picture about a segment of white America clutching at the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder. If it’d dared to go beyond cultural stereotypes, Hillbilly Elegy might have become a movie with some impact and significance.


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