Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Film Review: Hillbilly Elegy


Sexuality/Nudity Mature
Violence Acceptable
Vulgarity Mature
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Acceptable

There is enough talent in front of the camera and behind it to make a great movie out of this material.  Unfortuneatly, it never fully comes together.

Hillbilly Elegy is the story JD Vance (played as an adult by Gabriel Basso and as a young teenager by Owen Asztalos) growing up in poor south Ohio with family who have their roots in Kentucky.  As a young teen he lives with his singe mother Bev (Amy Adams) and his sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett).  They live close by Bev's dad, Papaw (Bo Hopkins) and Bev's tough-n-rough mom, Mamaw (Glenn Close).   The young adult JD is trying to pay his way through Yale law school when he gets called back home because Bev has overdosed.  Throughout the movie we get flashbacks of the teenage JD dealing with his mother's emotional problems and addictions and the path that led him to where he is now.

The big problem with the movie is that it is incredibly uneven.  Movies based on real life are much harder to structure because our biographies usually don't fit neatly into the three-act structure.  But the movie feels like its stuck in neutral for most of the film.  We are treated to Bev's continued degeneracy for a long time before the movie begins to pick up.  There is a scene where Bev is driving with JD and has a violent outbreak and threatens to kill both of them in a car crash.  Right after that scene, the movie should move to the next level, but it continues to meander for a while before getting there.

When the movie does get moving, its actually pretty good.  MILD SPOILER FOR THE REST OF THE PARAGRAPH.  When Bev goes too far off the rails, Mamaw faces the dilemma with what to do.  She lays in a hospital bed hooked up to oxygen and IV's after having collapsed at home.  She is too old to make a difference and no one would blame someone in her condition with throwing up her hands in helplessness.  But in the movie's most powerful scene, this broken woman gets up, pulls off her tubes and wires and walks out of the hospital to raise JD.  

One of the things that is really good about the movie is that director Ron Howard never looks down on this Appalachian culture.  He never tries to sanitize it or make like a slick Hollywood version of these people.  My mom was born in West Virginia and a strong line of my family is from there.  There was something honest and resonant about the portrayal that was incredible familiar.  They are not sophisticated as they wash the plastic cutlery in the sink, but they are quick to be helpful.  He allows his actors to shape their performances and their bodies like the people they are portraying.  When adult JD is with his sister's family at a barbecue, they are quick to ask around through their networks for rehab facilities for Bev.  Mamaw is particularly rough around the edges.  Her curly, frizzy hair and penchant for comfy t-shirts portrays a woman who has abandoned any trappings of femininity not as some kind of social statement but simply because comfort is more important than appearance.  

Mamaw is the heart of the movie.  She has the best scenes and the best lines.  She is a complex character.  You can see her transition from being indulgent with her daughter to being harsh with her grandson.  She pushes JD to be better, even if he hates her for it.  JD doesn't want to try because life is unfair.  He doesn't see why he has to do well in school because Bev was Salutatorian of her high school class and she is now a poor junkie.  What Mamaw says next has stayed with me days after watching the film.  She tells him that working hard will get him a chance.  And that's all he's guaranteed.  His not guaranteed success, life is too unfair for that.  All he can have is a chance at a better life, but he definitely won't get it if he doesn't try.

Another good thing that this movie does is that it shows how the vices of parents infect their children.  Bev marries her boss Ken (Keong Sim) and they move in with him and his son Travis (Morgan Gao).  Ken is nice enough, but he grows pot in his basement.  Travis skims some from his dad's supply and begins smoking it with JD.  This is emblematic of how the poor morals of parents can malform their kids.

The movie should sail soundly over the finish line from this point, but the adult JD story has its problems too.  His big emotional epiphany doesn't seem to jibe with his actions.  It is hard to explain without spoiling the ending, but when he realizes who and what is important in his life, he immediately leaves them.  There is a purpose to it, but it feels off.

If you want to see some great female performances, then this movie will deliver.  Close is amazing in what I think is her best performance that I have seen.  Mawmaw is resolute but unsure and desperate.  She is overwhelmed but determined.  Close never turns her into an angelic or hickish caricature, even when having to deliver terrible lines about good Terminators and bad terminators.  She absolutely disappears into this performance.  Adams continues to shine her talent.  Her Bev is infuriating and familiar in the way we've seen adults act like spoiled children because life did not turn out the way they wanted.  Her pain is selfish and self-centered, but it is still very real.  Bennett is someone I have had my eye on for awhile.  She has been slowly been building up a very strong resume of performances.  She is completely natural in her role as the steady center of the generational gaps and she never tries to "out act" Close or Adams.  She keeps everything wonderfully and subtly grounded.  The male performances by Basso and Asztalos are fine, but they never reach the level of their female costars.  Frieda Pinto does a nice turn as JD's girlfriend Usha, but she doesn't have much to do except be a symbol of the life that he wants to have.

Ron Howard makes the movie beautiful to watch and as I wrote before he portrays everyone with more dignity than I am used to seeing in a big budget film.  

If they had only spent a little more time developing the script, they would have a story worthy of the talent that made it.

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