Hillbilly Elegy (2020) Review
The most striking moment in #RonHoward's #Netflix film "Hillbilly Elegy" occurs when J. D. Vance (Gabriel Basso and Owen Asztalos as the younger Vance) attends a dinner at Yale the night before interview week in hopes of working at one of the major law firms in the country. His table mates find out he's originally from the Appalachians and went to Ohio St. University. The murmur of disapproval was shocking. For one thing, someone who made it to an elite institution without connections should be praised and who knew Ohio St. was looked down upon as a "state school." But they certainly aren't the band I travel with.
#HillbillyElegy is based on Mr. Vance's memoir of the same name. In it he tells his story of escaping from an Ohio town on life support. He joined the military and worked his way through Ohio St., making it to Yale. But that wasn't even the toughest part. On the night of the dinner he gets a call from his sister, Lindsay (Haley Bennett), informing him that their mother, Beverly (#AmyAdams), has overdosed on heroin. He leaves Harvard and travels the night back to Ohio.
Mr. Howard tells two parallel stories in "Hillbilly." The current day J.D and the challenge of choosing whether to care for his mother or focus on his future and the story of his younger self and how he navigated his early days through that small town. But the true beginning of Vance's story is when his grandmother, Mamaw (#GlennClose, and the younger version Sunny Mabrey), moved herself and young husband out of their small Kentucky town to one of the growing industrial towns in Ohio. Intersecting the two stories Mr. Howard shows what that Ohio town looked like to the newly wed couple from Kentucky. New factories were going up, the main streets were filled downtown. The town fueled dreams of a bright future for those arriving from bleaker parts of the country. Mr. Howard, would cleverly cut to the Vance's modern day family traveling down the same roads but this time past abandoned stores and factories. It's a reminder of the emptiness and abandonment that Mamaw fled from in Kentucky only to have it catch up with her in Ohio.
Mr. Howard doesn't blatantly show us what's happening to rural towns across America but he does show us the effects they have on families. The violence between family members and the men and women who are searching for relationships with each other are an exclamation mark. The drug use is open to everyone. For the teens its recreational. For the struggling adults is a getaway. The future is bleak but its also why J.D Vance is an admirable character to follow.
There isn't any type of plot in "Hillbilly Elegy." What Mr. Howard shows us is a series of scenes of a struggling America. The suspense arises from our wondering what J. D. will choose; his mother or his future. It is a well drawn portrait and, without directly saying so, an answer to the reason behind our current political atmosphere.
Mr. Basso does a nice job radiating Vance's sensitivity and intelligence. He has a tough job of mixing an annoyance toward his mother whose once again lost her way and a general sweetness that Mr. Asztalos also did a nice job of establishing. And its important. The tragedy surrounding this character is bleak but its easy to latch our hopes onto both actors.
Ms. Adams and Ms. Close are the heavyweights of this production and their encounters are worth the price of admission (or membership). The problem for Ms. Adams is that there isn't much width to the to the role she's playing. She's consistently erupting. We have a few glimpses of some loving moments with her children but she acts out against a world that has worn her down. Ms. Close is a pleasure and she takes charge just as her character does to her grandson in the hopes of propelling him to a better future. One she wished upon herself when she left her home town in Kentucky.
The make-up department should be mentioned. They did an uncanny job of making Ms. Close and Ms. Adams look like their characters. The film showed pictures of Vance's real life family during the ending credits. And I couldn't tell the difference between them or the actors. I would have done the same thing just to get a Academy nomination for the make-up department.
The surprise from the belittling of Vance's origins comes at the beginning of the story. It helps us latch on for the ride with him. The depth to people's lives are extraordinary and this film does better then most to remind us to pause first before we judge someone else.