Hillbilly Elegy (2020)

RON HOWARD

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB

USA, 2020. , . Screenplay by , based on the novel by . Cinematography by . Produced by , Ron Howard, . Music by , . Production Design by . Costume Design by . Film Editing by Golden Globe Awards 2020.  

Ron Howard films J.D. Vance’s memoir about growing up with his troubled mother and troublemaking grandmother, and does so with his usual shallow skill, never reaching past the first layer of content and focusing instead on familiar Hollywood southern-shaming (“I’m the one person who got away from all these ignorant varmints!”)  Vance, played in the present by , is succeeding academically at Yale Law school but is barely getting by financially, desperate to earn an internship in the hopes that it will make it possible for him to finish paying for school and graduating.  The night before a make-or-break interview with a tony law firm, he is informed that he needs to drive back to his hometown of Middletown, Ohio to see to his mother Bev (Amy Adams), who has fallen off the drug addiction wagon and needs to be put into rehab.  The journey home generates flashbacks to his childhood and the beginnings of Bev’s woes, working as a nurse in a hospital and getting hooked on the pain pills she would steal from patients, dealing with the disappointments of her life growing up witnessing an abusive marriage and suffering a series of disappointments in relationships herself.  Young J.D. (played by ) can only rely on his relationship with his sister Lindsay (a sympathetic ) and his “Mamaw” (Glenn Close), Bev’s mother, a chain-smoking, tough-talking broad who left the hills of Kentucky as a teenager and came to Middletown to raise her family when the mill was still running and keeping the town alive.  Now in her old age, Mamaw is overrun with regret, particularly in how her children ended up, and sees an opportunity to make things right by helping her grandson raise himself out of a destructive cycle and really make something of himself.  The emotional draw of this story is too strong to resist, this Lion meets The Prince of Tides with elements of Nurse Jackie has moments that are really powerful (and, naturally, Close is responsible for most of them despite looking like a person of interest in a Lethal Weapon sequel), but the daring and provocative scenes of both women fully embodying their characters’ harshest aspects feels undercut by a predictable and cheesy framing device:  whether or not Vance will make it to his job interview on time is painfully contrived and reveals a hollow centre to this well-meaning film.  Basso is forgettably bland in the lead, Freida Pinto equally so as his girlfriend, and the two characters you’re most interested in watching are only observed through his narrating viewpoint and never properly investigated.  The story of people leaving Appalachia to seek work or a bigger world, bringing that often disrespected culture to other parts of the country, is one of pain, loss and complicated victories, all of which play a factor in the way these women have ended up and which should feel like a significant element of the story’s fabric;  Howard can only manage a prestige Hallmark movie, directing a series of dramatic encounters that are at times touching, at times upsetting, but rarely profound.

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