Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Rated R,115 minutes
Directed by: Ron Howard
Director Ron Howard’s HILLBILLY ELEGY is a little like David O. Russell’s THE FIGHTER if it lacked follow-through with its swing. It also features a loud, abrasive family who love each other but regularly self-sabotage whilst fighting for redemption. There are certainly poignant moments and powerful ingredients that make up this true-life tale adapted from J.D. Vance’s memoir, which centers on a troubled family in Appalachia struggling to achieve the American Dream. However, Howard holds back on delivering serious subtext that would complement this portrait of a man rectifying the emotional turmoil of his past with his present circumstances. It’s selectively streamlined, as real issues are skirted in favor of feel-good superficialities.
J.D. Vance (played adeptly both in younger years by Owen Asztalos, and later ones by Chris O’Donnell-ish Gabriel Basso) has never forgotten where he came from. His backwoods roots are a part of his DNA, as is his tumultuous upbringing, moving from Kentucky to Southern Ohio. He’s climbed the ladder of success through shrewd intelligence and a series of blue-collar jobs, landing him at Yale, hoping to get a get a summer associate job at a big law office to offset the burdensome cost of his education. He also has a sweet girlfriend, Usha (Freida Pinto), helping him with his etiquette in navigating stressful social situations.
Yet J.D.’s hard-earned academic ascension and keen ability to rise above life’s challenges is tested when he gets a call from his harried sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett). She wants him to return home to take care of their heroin-addicted mother Bev (Amy Adams, whose nuance, likeability and vulnerability do a lot of the heavy lifting). Bev is being released from the hospital after an overdose, and is in desperate need of a stable living situation. Despite their estrangement (a long-standing grudge Bev weaponizes against her son), J.D. dedicates his time to her recovery while simultaneously reckoning with the less-than-ideal circumstances that put him on his current right track. The pressure is compounded when an important, immovable interview with a top firm is scheduled – one that will greatly impact his future if he misses it.
The way Howard and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor capture multi-generational trauma is one of the picture’s strongest suits, showing how pain, bitter anger and abuse are inherited, exacerbated, or lessened. It’s evidenced in the juxtaposed montages where young J.D. drives through their then-prosperous steel mill town, filled with life and happiness, but in his later years it’s been hit hard by economic recession and a drug crisis – everyday reminders of loss, failure and collapse. This imagery directly connects to thematic motifs we see the Vance family grappling with in their lifetimes, from Bev’s self-destructive impulses and courageous attempts to heal, to the death and reclamation of hope, love and normalcy brought about by Mamaw (Glenn Close, who severely bungles her portrayal playing to the cheap seats). We’re shown all sides of the prism that refracts generational anguish and anxiety. All the scenes set in cars, of which there are many, reflect the transitory nature of grief.
That said, the rest of the film is a mess. Character development is ham-handed when it comes to a few of the supporting players. Usha is this film’s Woman Who Waits By The Phone, existing solely to aid the male arc. Lindsay does a 360, not a 180, with nothing to motivate her decisions. It’s confusing as she starts off pleading with her brother to return, but mere hours later, pivots to supporting (to the point of enabling) her brother’s desire to leave so he can abandon them once again in a time of need. Papaw (Bo Hopkins) is barely established before he’s killed off, yet the filmmakers give him the grand cinematic treatment of strings swelling and characters weeping. His virtual absence affects the emotional toe-hold we have on his relationship dynamics not just as an ex-husband, but as a father and grandfather. We must rely on what we’re told, not shown, which isn’t very effective for the filmmakers, nor affecting for the audience.
Howard and Taylor also pummel the audience with metaphors and allusions from moment one, when young J.D. picks up a turtle with a broken shell crossing the road and helps him. J.D. accidentally breaks Bev’s Easter egg display, cracking empty eggshells that symbolize those he’s forced to walk on with his mom’s quick temper. Later, Bev dumps the contents of her purse all over J.D.’s homework, again symbolically mirroring her continually dumping her problems in his lap. Plus, the eye-roll inducing bromides putting a bigger emphasis on their family values in the bookending narration cheapen the value of what’s being shown.
HILLBILLY ELEGY opens in select theaters on November 11. It begins streaming globally on Netflix on November 24.