Synopsis – An urgent phone call pulls a Yale Law student back to his Ohio hometown, where he reflects on three generations of family history and his own future.
My Take – With the amount of positive response received by filmmaker David Fincher‘s Mank, it seems like this awards season Netflix finally has it clearest front runner for the coveted Best Picture Oscar. However, at the beginning of the year, the streaming giant may have felt another film would have occupied that space, in the form of director Ron Howard‘s latest, which also happens to be their least subtle Oscar-bait film ever.
Based on J. D. Vance’s 2016 memoir of the same name which found ample controversy upon release as American conservatives and some liberals identified the book, in the aftermath of Donald Trump‘s election, as revealing difficult truths about the white working class, but at the same time, it also received wide criticism for its inauthentic and damaging portrayal of the people it purportedly represents.
However, here, director Howard and writer Vanessa Taylor scrub their adaption clean of the book’s politics, with their main purpose seemingly to be only wringing out emotion from both viewers and critics, with a pile of clichés seen in various films previously. The film clearly wants to be a great statement on family, society, poverty, addiction, and the American dream. But, despite the film’s attempts at pathos, it ends up being nothing but a convoluted mess.
The film doesn’t just fall short, but it also fails even to serve as a vehicle for two brilliant actresses, Amy Adams and Glenn Close, who between them, have 13 Oscar nominations for acting. And without the power of these two wonderful actresses, director Howard likely would have had the film slide into the over-sentimental mode so common with Hallmark or Lifetime films.
While I didn’t dislike the film as much as mainstream critics are hating on it, I did feel that with a stronger and differently-focused script, the case would have been otherwise.
With the narrative split in two periods, the story follows J. D. Vance, as a mild-mannered child (Owen Asztalos) and as a young man (Gabriel Basso) struggling to fit in among his rich classmates at Yale Law school. As a young boy J.D. was always wise beyond his age, mainly as it saw him and his sister, Lindsay (Haley Bennett), being raised by their single mom, Beverly “Bev” Vance (Amy Adams), who struggles with addiction. Although she didn’t set the best example, J.D. coached his mother through breakups and bouts of anger. And on the other hand he had Bonnie “Mamaw” Vance (Glenn Close), his grandmother and Bev’s mother, whose tough love and support changed the course of his becoming.
Now years later, all grown up J.D. is a second-year law student at Yale University with a girlfriend named Usha (Freida Pinto) and an insufficient financial aid package. His only hope of staying in the program is a fancy summer associate job at a law firm. While he does get a callback interview, he also finds out from Lindsay that Bev is in the hospital after overdosing on heroin. Forcing him to return to help his sister. However, his return to the holler of Appalachia and race against the clock to make it back to Connecticut for his final clerkship interview also brings back bittersweet and painful memories of his youth.
Personally, I enjoyed the fact that the film offered a rare glimpse at the sacrifices people like J.D. have made to achieve their dreams, all while highlighting the importance of family and where you came from. That is until the film reduces itself to a formulaic rags-to-riches story about a kid pulling himself out of a living hell.
One of the film’s key failings is that you are never sure who the film’s center is. Technically, J.D. is the lead, as we see his ascent to Yale from his days growing up in Appalachia. But despite nominally being the central character, we learn almost nothing about J. D. Vance himself. Throughout the film he functions primarily as a means for other characters to pontificate and to project their philosophical views on the family or hard work.
The film works best when focusing on the grown-up J.D., forced to make a choice between his family and his future. The younger years tend to be a little bit more of an overdone after-school special/cautionary tale: Bev’s an unpredictable, raging hot mess, and sensitive J.D. is caught in a cycle of abuse. We see his interactions with Beverly and his Mamaw which is cuts back and forth from J.D. trying to get Beverly into rehab to his own upbringing, highlighting J.D.’s unusual upbringing in Middletown, Ohio.
But the film suffers from this juxtaposition, as you are dealing with J.D. and his journey one moment, Beverly’s descent into addiction the next. We also see her volatile behavior towards Lindsay and J.D. even before that. Dual timelines can be an effective story trope, but they fail to deliver here. You see very little growth on J.D.’s part, and each flashback sequence follows a similar formula: Beverly does something awful and the rest of the family reacts to said awful thing. The decision to divide J.D.’s story in this manner adds very little to the film and is frequently interrupted by uninteresting vignettes like J.D. telling a table of lawyers how smart his mother is.
The film also teases an apparent generational mistreatment in passing only glimpsed in a flashback to his Mamaw’s youth. In fact, Mamaw’s overall backstory, which involves getting pregnant at 13 and abandoning the family’s old Kentucky home, is hinted at yet frustratingly left behind.
However, the most disappointing thing is that the film lacks any humanity or emotion. Given the story of the film it can be expected that it can make the audience shed a few tears at the appropriate moment, particularly given the film features numerous incidents that have the capacity to move. However, no such moments exist.
Nevertheless the performances are excellent all around, which is a shame. Glenn Close especially deserves Oscar nod No. 8 for giving off a palpable, unconventional performance. She is nearly unrecognizable behind the glasses, curly wig and perpetual squint she wears as Mamaw, the chain-smoking matriarch of the clan. Being the consummate performer she is, Close never lets the makeup do the acting for her and clearly understands this character from the inside.
Amy Adams once again seizes the role of the former nurse who got canned for roller-skating in the hospital while on a heroin high. By playing a woman always on the verge of violent rage, Adams exposes every raw nerve, and hits all the right spots with her performance. Gabriel Basso and Owen Asztalos look uncannily alike, and lend the film steady performances. While Haley Bennett, Freida Pinto and Bo Hopkins are equally solid. On the whole, ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ is a shallow middling dysfunctional family drama which felt more like a missed opportunity than an outright terrible film.
Directed – Ron Howard
Rated – R
Run Time – 116 minutes