'Hillbilly Elegy': Film Review

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Lacey Terrell / Netflix
A sympathetic but less than stirring portrait of hard-bitten lives.
11/11/2020

Ron Howard directs Glenn Close and Amy Adams, as a mother and daughter with a tumultuous relationship, in the film adaptation of J.D. Vance's debate-sparking memoir.

Arriving during an expectation-shattering electoral season, J.D. Vance's 2016 book, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, hit a zeitgeist nerve. Against the backdrop of Donald Trump's ascendancy, Vance's story of his against-the-odds rise from Rust Belt poverty to the Ivy League was oft-cited in a hand-wringing national conversation (or shouting match) about the political establishment vis-a-vis the white working class. It offered a window into a world that most pundits knew nothing about.

Now, four long years later, and just days after Trump was voted out of office, that story hits the screen, and some of Vance's detractors have preemptively denounced the film on the basis of his conservative politics. Yet in many ways it's an American-dream saga we've seen countless times before, for good and for bad: a paean to personal grit and stick-to-itiveness. What sets it apart are the take-no-prisoners performances of Amy Adams and Glenn Close, tearing it up with full-throttled cursing and maternal freak-outs by the bushel.

Director Ron Howard and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (Divergent, The Shape of Water) generally avoid Vance's more sweeping, and controversial, cultural judgments about poor whites of Appalachian lineage and zero in on the family aspect of the story. Its small-town setting places the movie on a continuum with Howard's stirring documentary Rebuilding Paradise. But compared with that portrait of a Northern California community's resilience after a decimating wildfire, Hillbilly Elegy is both tougher-minded and, ultimately, less affecting. Howard's basic utilitarian efficiency suits the material, but it also keeps the action at a certain remove.

Even so, the helmer is working in a more observational, less plot-driven vein than usual, and a few sequences break through the smooth narrative shell. Elegy — which makes its Netflix streaming debut Nov. 24 after a Nov. 11 bow in theaters — embraces the emotional messiness of a heart-wringing country song, but lacks a haunting refrain to get under your skin.

The drama moves back and forth between two time periods in J.D.'s life. The teenager is played by Owen Asztalos and the law school student by Gabriel Basso, actors well matched in terms of looks and temperament. In 1997, J.D.'s romantically impulsive mom, Bev (Adams), is spinning out of control with an opioid addiction, and his "Mamaw" (Close) steps in to provide the parenting he needs. In the film's present day of 2011, just at the crucial moment when J.D. needs to interview for a much-needed summer job, he's called home from Yale to help his older sister, Lindsay (Haley Bennett), deal with Bev, who's been hospitalized after a heroin overdose. What unites those two periods, J.D. says in voiceover, is that "twice I needed to be rescued."

In the opening stretch that voiceover narration leans a bit too heavily on aw-shucks declarations about "my people." J.D. is referring to the hill country of Kentucky, where, when he was a kid, his great-grandmother still lived and a large group of relatives gathered each summer. Howard and DP Maryse Alberti capture the simple natural beauty of the holler and the swimming hole, although the bullying by local boys makes you wonder why J.D. loves the place so unequivocally. Then again, defending yourself against adversity — i.e., learning to put up your dukes when necessary — and up-by-your-bootstraps scrappiness are defining elements of this tale.

J.D. believes that his family, transplanted to Middletown, in southern Ohio, two generations before him, is cut off not just from its country roots but from a sense of hope. There are evocative glimpses of Mamaw and Papaw as teens in love, fleeing coal country for a new life. Those scenes stand in poignant contrast to the present-day economic crisis for Middletown and its company-town steel mill, as well as to the marital struggles that lay ahead for the couple.

Pawaw (Bo Hopkins) is pretty much sidelined in the movie, which might be an emblem of the way many of the town's men were eventually sidelined by the steel industry. It's problematic, though, when that nagging voiceover stresses how close Bev is to her father but we see no evidence of their bond. There's no doubt, however, about the bond between the teenage J.D. and his chain-smoking Mamaw, who minces no words as she gets him to straighten up and fly right and tries, unsuccessfully, to do the same with her flailing daughter.

Close's extreme physical transformation may be distracting at first, and she's not always well served by her director, but she avoids shtick and taps into something ferocious yet vulnerable, spitting out pearls of epic put-down audacity. (The meme/camp potential is strong for some of the zingers in Taylor's screenplay, perfectly delivered by Close; there's a special place in the camp firmament for crazy movie mothers with good lines.)

Adams may have fewer choice morsels of dialogue than Close does, but she digs in just as intensely. The mercurial Bev is the eye of the hurricane in J.D.'s chaotic upbringing. Whatever mode she might be in — upbeat nurse, playful mama, death-tripping monster — Adams makes Bev's every resentment, disappointment and pleasure thoroughly believable. It isn't clear whether her personality disorder predates her drug problem, but whatever the case, the way she flips on a dime is terrifying. A sequence that begins with her and J.D. in the car and ends at a stranger's house is especially unsettling, and Alberti, an experienced documentary cinematographer, shoots it with an in-the-moment immediacy that heightens the tension.

In the face of all this unpredictability, in both time frames, J.D.'s sister plays a pivotal role. Bennett, who provided one of the few sparks of human kindness in The Devil All the Time, here effortlessly embodies a figure of strength and warmth, and she and Basso create a convincing sibling chemistry. Another key steadying influence for J.D. is his girlfriend, Usha (Freida Pinto), a fellow student who lends support, mainly via telephone from New Haven, in a blandly conceived role.

Nuance is not Howard's strong suit, and the time-hopping narrative's pileup of crises grows repetitive. But there are some well-observed details in Taylor's distillation of the source material, as when J.D. has to split a rehab payment for his mother among four credit cards, and the dripping condescension, not to mention unconscious bias, when a Yale professor acknowledges to Ohio State grad J.D. that there are "plenty of great state schools."

Whatever lessons it might want to impart, Hillbilly Elegy doesn't romanticize its subjects or package their struggles in neat bromides or cornpone redemption. In the late going especially, the director and Basso give a persuasive weight to the friction between family responsibility and personal ambition. There are moments that clang off-key or land with the flatness of cliché, but there are also sharp observations across the urban-rural divide. And perhaps the sharpest is uttered by Mamaw, the movie's stooped and limping superhero, when she says of her husband, and by extension her daughter and many a troubled soul: "He let things get to him, make him feel small."

Distributor: Netflix
Production company: Imagine Entertainment
Cast: Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Gabriel Basso, Haley Bennett, Freida Pinto, Bo Hopkins, Owen Asztalos, Keong Sim, Morgan Gao, Sunny Mabrey, Brett Lorenzini
Director: Ron Howard
Screenwriter: Vanessa Taylor
Based on the book by J.D. Vance
Producers: Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Karen Lunder
Executive producers: Diana Pokorny, Julie Oh, William M. O'Connor, J.D. Vance
Director of photography: Maryse Alberti
Production designer: Molly Hughes
Costume designer: Virginia B. Johnson
Editor: James D. Wilcox
Composers: Hans Zimmer, David Fleming
Casting director: Carmen Cuba

116 minutes