Sunday 3 January 2021

Movie Review: Hillbilly Elegy (2020)

A drama about working class family struggles and the challenges of a tumultuous upbringing, Hillbilly Elegy enjoys fine performances and a rich, though-provoking narrative.

The events predominantly unfold in two time frames. As a law student at Yale, J.D. Vance (Gabriel Basso) is supported by his girlfriend Usha (Frieda Pinto) as he goes through the stressful intern placement interview process. His sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett) calls from Ohio with news their mother Bev (Amy Adams) has overdosed and is hospitalized.

In flashbacks J.D. recalls his turbulent upbringing. His grandparents Mamaw and Papaw (Glenn Close and Bo Hopkins) moved from ramshackle roots in rural Kentucky to Middletown, Ohio, but life for young J.D. was always tough. His single mother Bev was unstable, moving from man to man, getting into opioids and losing her nursing licence. Abusive towards J.D. but also loving and supportive when lucid, Bev was always an accident waiting to happen. Mamaw provides a place of refuge and has to decide whether to intervene to give J.D. a chance at a better life.

Now J.D. drives back to Middletown to help Lindsay deal with the latest overdose crisis, his mother's behaviour again threatening to derail his future.

Based on real events as recounted in Vance's 2016 memoir, Hillbilly Elegy is a clear-eyed look at the vicious cycle of poverty, lack of education and abuse entrapping the disadvantaged. Without glamourizing or belittling the resultant hardscrabble life, screenwriter Vanessa Taylor and director Ron Howard also seek the strength instilled by family ties, and Bev's struggle to improve despite deep-rooted flaws.

Mostly steering clear of stand-and-gawk storytelling and resisting the strong temptation to give up on exasperating behaviour, Taylor's script focuses on origins, good and bad, forging J.D. into who he is. His upbringing meant he grew up in a hurry and faced decisions no child should be forced to make, but his mother and grandmother, sometimes despite themselves, also charted his tricky path to Yale. And so J.D. defends his family in front of slick suited lawyers at the risk of being perceived a bumpkin. With Lindsay's help he digs deep to find the good in Bev, looking past the in-progress self-destruction to the potential for a better future.

The rags-to-respectability journey is mostly composed of familiar elements, but Howard finds a pleasing rhythm between the current and flashback scenes, and delivers a coherent package in just under two hours. Flashback snippets to different experiences (Mamaw and Papaw as a younger couple, J.D.'s stint with the Marines) are less relevant. 

Amy Adams and Glenn Close deliver dedicated, intense performances. Adams is sometimes nothing less than scary in finding the suddenly unhinged moments of a mother unleashing fury at her son. Close redefines crusty, her face etched with years of struggle and no shortage of determination, the obvious creases hiding the still unknown agonies Mamaw endured with an abusive drunk of a husband. In a less showy role, Gabriel Basso succeeds as the level-headed anchor remarkably still capable of forgiveness. 

A story of potential hiding within suffering, Hillbilly Elegy differentiates between acknowledging grim shortcomings and accepting their permanence.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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