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"HILLBILLY ELEGY"
(2020) (Gabriel Basso, Amy Adams) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A law school student must contend with his mother's erratic behavior and drug addiction as he tries to break free from his troubled upbringing.
PLOT:

It's 2011 and J.D. Vance (GABRIEL BASSO) is a former Marine turned college graduate who's now attending Yale Law School. With the support of his classmate and girlfriend, Usha (FREIDA PINTO), J.D. appears on the verge of escaping from his troubled upbringing, something he's yet to share in full with Usha. But that comes roaring back when he receives a call from his older sister, Lindsay (HALEY BENNETT), that their mother, Bev (AMY ADAMS), is in the hospital following a heroin overdose.

Despite having interviews in the next few days, J.D. drives overnight to Middletown, OH where he grew up with his sister and mom, and with his grandmother, Mamaw (GLENN CLOSE), a few doors d,own and his grandfather, Papaw (BO HOPKINS), a few houses down from there. The latter two fled their rural Kentucky homes as teenagers in hopes of pursuing the American dream, but things didn't go as planned, which also held true for Bev, a nurse with a drug problem and a penchant for choosing the wrong types of men. In flashbacks, we see young J.D. (OWEN ASZTALOS) having to deal with all of that.

As those play out in his head, J.D. tries to get Bev the help she needs, but her erratic behavior and refusal to cooperate means he might not make it back to New Jersey for an important interview that could help him finally escape his past.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10

There's no denying that a massive cultural, ideological, and thus political divide exists in the U.S. right now. Not long ago, people could have polar opposite viewpoints and still be friends as long as politics didn't come up or, if it did, wasn't turned into personal attacks or "my way or the highway," backs-against-the-wall stances.

As a result, anything directly or indirectly tied to something deemed as ideologically based is immediately demonized by "the other side." The latest such example is "Hillbilly Elegy," director Ron Howard's adaptation of J.D. Vance's memoir of the same name that came out in 2016.

That work was immediately deemed by literary critics, pundits, and others as an example of why poor whites in Appalachia (and elsewhere) supported Donald Trump when, on the surface, that seemed like doing so was against their best interests. Some hailed it and others reviled it, both for what was in the story of a young man overcoming a troubled, poor childhood and what wasn't present (and that they thought should have been there to match their viewpoints).

I haven't read the work, but having just watched Howard's film, I'm surprised -- but not entirely shocked -- by the amount of hatred the offering is receiving, with some calling it the worst film of the year. Really?

If that's the case those critics not only need to see more than one movie a year, but they also have to stop projecting their hang-ups and baggage on something that remotely isn't being an ideologically or politically motivated offering (beyond a brief TV clip of Al Gore and a brief mention of Monica Lewinsky).

That aside, the question that remains is how good or bad the film is when only taking artistic merits into account. I wouldn't say it's the Oscar contender that I'm sure those behind it were hoping for, but it's a decently told if not particularly novel tale with good performances, some of which occasionally teeter along but thankfully don't fall over the precipice and into melodrama or caricature.

In the nearly two-hour film that jumps around through time, the anchoring story focuses on J.D. (Gabriel Brasso), a former Marine turned college graduate who's now at Yale Law School in a loving relationship with his girlfriend (Freida Pinto). With interviews coming up that could land him a job at a law firm (and thus help eradicate some of his student debt), things seem great.

But then his past comes knocking -- or more accurately, ringing -- when his sister (Haley Bennett) calls to let him know that their mother is using again and has been hospitalized following a heroin overdose. He ends up dropping everything and returns to Middletown, Ohio to try to get his mom into rehab so that he can immediately turn around and get back in time for a pivotal interview that could be one of the last steps he needs to escape from his troubled childhood.

Howard -- working from a screenplay by Vanessa Taylor -- includes many flashbacks to when J.D. was a young teenager (played by Owen Asztalos) having to contend with his mentally unstable mom. But he has the cranky and profane support of his grandmother (Glenn Close) who, without outright saying it, would like for someone in the family to finally break the cycle of poverty, bad relationships and so on.

With the story jumping back and forth through time, we see what ultimately led to the present-day happenings, all while the young man races to overcome obstacles, get his mom where she needs to be, and hit the road again.

It's a familiar tale, and maybe due to that but aside from the minor subplot involving J.D. and his girlfriend, I didn't find most of it overly engaging (maybe I liked those moments simply as a respite from the more histrionic material). While Asztalos made me feel for his kid in a family maelstrom character, Adams' severely screwed up mother for some reason didn't make me mad at or sad for her. The performance is good, but it certainly borders and occasionally dips into melodrama.

But the performance that people are either going to really love or really hate is Close's as the highly opinionated, rough around the edges family matriarch. The actress is pretty much unrecognizable in the role (with heavy makeup to closely match the real-life woman she's playing) and I found it to be a terrific performance. But I can see why some will confuse it more as a caricature than a realistic portrayal (although I'll bet they've never met someone like her, which I have), especially with some of her "motivational" material occasionally being a bit hackneyed, too on the nose, or a bit faux profound.

All of which might add further fuel to the fire for the "haters gonna hate" crowd and their prejudgment on this offering. But if you go in with an open and neutral mind, you'll find a decent offering that purposefully doesn't delve into ideology and instead focuses on the tale of coming to grips with one's past and accepting that it's part of who and why someone is who they are. "Hillbilly Elegy" rates as a 5.5 out of 10.




Reviewed November 23, 2020 / Posted November 25, 2020


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