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‘Hillbilly Elegy’ a flawed but powerful portrait of poverty’s generational price

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One of the things that I’ve learned from being part of the larger critical discourse surrounding movies is that I generally align with the consensus view of my peers. That’s not to say I’m in lockstep with the crowd – we all have our differences – but a lot of the time, we’re in the same neighborhood.

Not always, though.

Take the new Netflix film “Hillbilly Elegy,” directed by Ron Howard from a script by Vanessa Taylor adapted from J.D. Vance’s 2016 memoir of the same name. This story of a young man’s connection to his Kentucky roots and how those roots impact his current circumstances as a student at Yale Law School has been largely panned by critics, with many viewing it as a transparent awards grab lacking in soul and substance.

I respectfully disagree.

I’m not calling this a perfect movie by any stretch – it has its share of issues to be sure. But it is a much better movie than it has been deemed by critics, a story of poverty and its generational impacts that at least tries to address the emotional, social and economic realities that come from being poor. It isn’t always successful, but even the misplaced efforts merit a degree of credit.

In the late 1990s, J.D. Vance (Owen Asztalos, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul”) is a young teenager looking to find his way. He and his family live in Ohio, but their home – the place where their roots are – is the small town of Jackson, Kentucky. This is where he spends his summers, among people whose generational bloodlines are inextricably entangled with the hills.

He lives with his single mother Beverly (Amy Adams, “Vice”) and his older sister Lindsey (Haley Bennett, “The Devil All the Time”) in Ohio; his grandmother Mamaw (Glenn Close, “Four Good Days”) – the family matriarch – lives down the street, while grandfather Papaw (Bo Hopkins, “The Boys at the Bar”) has his own place further down the block.

Over a decade later, a now-grown J.D. (Gabriel Basso, “American Wrestler: The Wizard”) is a student at Yale Law School. He’s working three jobs trying to make ends meet, but his financial assistance is significantly less for the coming year – his only shot is to try and land a prestigious summer internship. He’s nervous and full of self-doubt, despite the constant efforts of his girlfriend Usha (Freida Pinto, “Love Wedding Repeat”) to convince him that he’s got what it takes.

A call from his sister reveals trouble back home – family trouble that she can’t handle on her own. And so, J.D. has to head back to Ohio to help her, risking his own future as he ventures back into a past that he’s tried hard to escape.

Back and forth, we move from past to present, watching as J.D. grows up in a family that continuously struggles with the harsh realities of life below the poverty line. For every step forward, there are two steps back; both then and now, J.D. is confronting problems that are rooted in the long-term struggles of the American poor.

Is “Hillbilly Elegy” heavy-handed? Absolutely. This is not a subtle movie in any sense of the word. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing – the issues this story addressed don’t need to be subtextual. And heaven knows that Ron Howard is willing to lean hard on emotional buttons in the course of his storytelling. It is heavy-handed because it’s a heavy subject.

One could argue that the blatant baitiness of the film is an issue; it’s VERY obvious that Netflix is positioning this one to win some hardware for the streamer. And there’s something Extremely Oscar about the dual performances of Adams and Close, both doing what comes at times dangerously close to poverty cosplay. This could have become unintentional camp, but to my mind, it never tips over the edge.The danger with a movie like this is for it to turn into tourism, a chance to rubberneck at the less fortunate. Unlike many of my peers, I don’t feel like it crosses that line into hicksploitation. There are a LOT of different ways to be poor in this country; just because this story doesn’t match up with your perception of how poverty looks doesn’t make it totally inaccurate.

Again – there are moments that are overwrought and melodramatic, moments where the underlying messaging is subsumed by various cinematic trappings. But those flaws don’t undercut the movie as a whole; they’re simply part of the package.

Much of the conversation surrounding this movie is going to be aimed at the two women at the top of the call sheet. Both Glenn Close and Amy Adams have been nominated for Academy Awards multiple times – Close has seven; Adams six – without ever managing a win; “Hillbilly Elegy” is a pretty obvious attempt on both their parts to alleviate that. The Academy has historically loved these kinds of transformative performances, so the path to nomination seems pretty clear. That said, neither actress seems to be digging as deeply as they have in the past, letting the makeup and prosthetics do a considerable amount of the heavy lifting. Good performances, but not necessarily great ones; still, don’t be surprised if one or both pull a lifetime achievement-type win.

The rest of the cast is solid. Basso is quite good, capturing the inferiority that often comes with a lower-class upbringing. It’s a thoughtful, heartfelt performance. Young Owen Asztalos impresses, holding his own alongside powerhouses like Close and Adams. Bennett is low-key wonderful, providing an emotional honesty to every scene in which she appears. Pinto, Hopkins … the entire ensemble breathes life into these various, disparate communities.

“Hillbilly Elegy” doesn’t quite manage to become the capital-I Important film it wants to be. Some odd tonal inconsistencies and a few overly-simplistic narrative choices prevent it from ascending to the heights it seeks. However, neither is it the abject disaster that so many seem eager to paint it. It is a good, flawed film that tries with varying degrees of success to explore the struggles inherent to life on the bottom of the American economic ladder.

[3.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 30 November 2020 15:00

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