Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Movie with Abe: Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy
Directed by Ron Howard
Released November 24, 2020 (Netflix)

During childhood, people learn about the world from those in their orbit and the experiences that they have. What they know depends on where they travel and the example set for them by family and friends. For someone who doesn’t leave their small bubble and get to interact with those who are different from their neighbors and community members, venturing out into the world can be jarring and overwhelming. It may also likely come with judgment from the people for which seeing someone unaccustomed to their way of life seems unfathomable and a target for mockery.

J.D. Vance (Gabriel Basso) grows up in Ohio and Kentucky with his strong-willed mother, Bev (Amy Adams), a nurse, his sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett), and his grandparents (Glenn Close and Bo Hopkins). Bev has trouble with drug addiction and is prone to bouts of fury, frequently lashing out at her children for perceived disrespect and questioning any of the values she has instilled in them. When J.D. grows up and goes to law school at Yale, where he meets Usha (Freida Pinto) and prepares for an illustrious career full of opportunities, he is forced to return home and confront the past he left behind when he learns that his mother has relapsed.

This film is adapted from the memoir of the same name by Vance published in 2016. The film represents both Bev and her mother, known as Mamaw, as fiercely protective of their family and their way of life, not content to be told by anyone else that the way they do things isn’t correct. Once he has left, J.D. begins to notice the stark differences between his upbringing and that of his peers, ranging from dismissive summaries of state colleges as “not that bad” to formal dinnerware whose functions he is expected to know. This isn’t an oversimplification of the “hillbilly” lifestyle but instead a collection of memories and experiences that serve as a reminder that people must, do some degree, adapt to their surroundings.

Basso, best known for his role on “The Big C,” is the true star of this film, demonstrating honesty and sensitivity in his portrayal of the protagonist. Adams, typically known for playing warm, likeable characters, delivers admirably with a passionate performance that makes Bev feel very real. Close, though talented and committed, isn’t quite as resonant in her portrayal of the older generation with a similar mentality. This film doesn’t uncover new earth-shattering truths about the differences that exist even within the same country based on geography and attitude, but it does tell a worthwhile story about one man determined to take only the best of what his early life has given him and shape it into something meaningful and enduring. It’s certainly not deserving of the onslaught of very negative reviews it has received.


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