HILLBILLY ELEGY

Producers: Brian Grazer, Ron Howard and Karen Lunder   Director: Ron Howard   Screenplay: Vanessa Taylor   Cast: Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Gabriel Basso, Haley Bennett, Frieda Pinto, Bo Hopkins, Owen Asztalos, Keong Sim, Morgan Gao, Jesse C. Boyd, Stephen Kunken, Sunny Mabrey and Brett Lorenzini   Distributor: Netflix

Grade: C

When J.D. Vance published his 2016 book, a recollection of the difficult childhood  in Kentucky and Ohio he’d escaped from, subtitled “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” it was treated by the media as a significant, though controversial, piece of popular sociology.  It was ostentatiously praised by some but criticized by others for using its portrait of a society torn by poverty, violence and addiction to suggest that it was the Appalachian, or hillbilly, culture itself that explained the region’s drift to indolence—and the rightist politics represented by newly-ascendant Trumpism.

In Ron Howard’s adaptation, those larger issues are at most implied in favor of a story of familial dysfunction and one boy’s determination, pressed upon him by his tough-love grandmother, to escape a toxic milieu.  That’s a defensible narrate choice—perhaps a necessary one if one wants to avoid succumbing to crude didacticism—but the result is structurally messy and, despite a highly histrionic tone, doesn’t deliver the emotional wallop it’s obviously straining for.

Vanessa Taylor’s screenplay shuttles between two timeframes.  One is in the late nineties, when teen J.D. (Owen Asztalos) must navigate between the influences of his mother and grandmother.   Bev (Amy Adams) is a nurse who loses jobs with much the same frequency as she changes men but is constant in her addictions and the volatility of her temper, ricocheting between motherly sweetness and screaming fits on a dime.  Her mother Bonnie, or Mamaw (Glenn Close) is a flinty but loving woman who, along with her husband Jim, or Pawpaw (Bo Hopkins), rescues J.D. and his older sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett) from Bev’s more dangerous outbursts when she can.  When Bev remarries and her new home puts J.D. in danger of falling prey to drugs and bad friends, she takes him in and sternly teaches him to change his ways, though always reminding him that family is everything. 

The other section of the plot is set fourteen years later, when J.D. (now Gabriel Basso), having served a stint in the Marines, is a student at Yale Law School with a brainy, beautiful girlfriend named Usha (Frieda Pinto).  Just as he’s embarking on interviews for the summer internship he needs to cover his tuition, he gets word from Lindsay that Bev has OD’d on heroin and he’s needed at home. It’s a responsibility he can’t shirk, so he drives back, only to find Bev intransigent, unwilling to accept the help he offers, even though he has to scrape up the funds to provide it.  In the end he has to decide whether to remain or go back north for an important interview, even though he’s already been treated condescendingly by the high-toned partners  for his back-country roots.

Taylor’s script careens back and forth from one era to another with such abandon that editor James Wilcox has little chance to make the transitions smooth.  To add to his troubles, there’s a third element occasionally added: flashbacks to Bonnie’s early marriage to Jim (the roles are taken in them by Sunny Mabrey and Brett Lorenzini).  These show that their family life was once marked by violence and abuse too, and that Bev’s childhood was no less brutal than J.D.’s, helping to explain why she has become the person she is.

The intent is to make her a more understandable character, but frankly Adams’ performance is so ragingly over-the-top that it’s hard to muster any enduring sympathy for her anyway.  In reality Close isn’t much less broad, but despite an awful lot of Mammy Yokum in her Mamaw, she at least brings a sense of gritty earthiness to the part.  The work of both actresses has more than a whiff of Oscar bait about it, but Close’s is more likely to resonate with voters.

In any event their turns contrast markedly with Basso, whose J.D. is blandness so complete that one wonders how he ever reached Yale Law.  (Except for a few desultory montages, the fourteen-year gap is pretty much ignored.)  Of course, the script does him no favors by overplaying his continued lack of polish, which makes his romance with Usha come across as precious.  Asztalos isn’t much better, but at least he brings a bit of variety to the child caught between women competing for control.

That’s really of a part with Howard’s approach.  Despite his evidence desire to fashion a grimly raw portrait of the dismal Appalachian setting—and the efforts of production designer Molly Hughes and cinematographer Maryse Alberti to achieve it—the director’s penchant to sanitize things, and to close with an ending to show that things can turn out well despite the obstacles, comes through.  Howard seems genuinely unable to fashion a full anti-Mayberry, however hard he might try, as evidenced by the “happily ever after” real-life clips accompanying the final credits, which, however well-meaning, undermine whatever intensity has preceded them.   The score by Hans Zimmer and David Fleming isn’t as potent as it might be either.

Perhaps Vance’s book would have resisted the attempt of any filmmaker to wrestle it onto the screen successfully, but Howard appears not to have been the right director for the job.  And while Adams and Basso might try your patience, there is some compensation in watching Close create a strong, vivid if somewhat clichéd character.