Hillbilly Elegy (2020)
★★ / ★★★★
Although Bev (Amy Adams) is shown to be an emotionally and physically abusive drug-addicted mother for almost the entire duration of this occasionally syrupy melodrama, the viewers still have an appreciation, however slight, of the fact that she loves her children. It’s just that there are times when she loves her demons more. “I’ve been doing real good. I just had a down month.”
“Hillbilly Elegy” is directed by Ron Howard, and just about halfway through one is forced to consider the possibility that he may not have been the ideal storyteller for the job. He is not comfortable in allowing the fangs sink in when rather grim subject matters, like addiction and abuse, move to the forefront. To circumvent this unease, Howard peppers the work with symbolic images of optimism—people touching each others’ hands just so, sunlight piercing through the darkness, a smile accompanied by a tear—that are so controlled, so calculated that we end up being reminded we are simply watching a movie.
The work is based upon J. D. Vance’s memoir and so it is supposed to be a personal and revealing look at white poverty, how your roots inevitably becomes a part of you, how your choices can have a direct influence on your future, and that family has the power to hinder or elevate you. On paper, the material hits every dramatic signpost designed to capture our attention and tug at our heartstrings. We wonder at the specific circumstances that led up to J. D. deciding to attend law school (adult J. D. is played by Gabriel Basso and young J. D. By Owen Asztalos). However, the picture fails to keep our interest. At times it comes across disinterested.
Vanessa Taylor’s screenplay is so busy laying out foundations of dramatic confrontations that it neglects crucial details. Other than the fact that J. D. has always been drawn to watching the news as child, what is it about law that drew him to study it? It is established that Bev has had a history of drug addiction, but when did it start? Bev’s mother, played by Glenn Close, also had her share of living with someone who was abusive. Naturally, we wonder about the flavor, strength, and elasticity of her relationship with her daughter. These are basic questions that must be answered on screen. Otherwise, what results are scenes of people raising hell but we fail to connect with them in meaningful ways because we are not provided the full context.
The story jumps between 2011 and 1997. It achieves a flow, and I enjoyed Basso and Asztalos’ performances. Notice that if you look at one actor long enough, you end up seeing remnants of the other—quite neat and amusing. Credit to casting director Carmen Cuba for choosing performers who evince a natural goodness. I wished Haley Bennett, who plays J. D.’s sister, and Frieda Pinto, as adult J. D.’s girlfriend, are given more to work with other than looking sad or concerned. Particularly interesting is the former, how Lindsay is able to overcome what she had to go through alongside her brother. In 1997, she emits so much light. In 2011, her light has dimmed but you can tell she’s still a fighter. She has the fight that her mother lacks. Thus, I wanted to know more about her story. Bennett is the quiet weapon here.
“Hillbilly Elegy” had the potential to become a potent portrait of poverty. When the end credits started rolling as photos and videos of the actors’ real-life counterparts are paraded on screen, my mind went to the idea of what filmmakers like Ken Loach, the Dardenne brothers, Mike Leigh, or Agnès Varda might have done with this particular story. These storytellers have considerable experience telling stories of the working class. More importantly, they have a thorough understanding of the value naturalism, the art of allowing or being. Instead, this movie is like a closed fist. The more curious bits end up trickling through its fingers.