Author J.D. Vance threw a culture war smart bomb at us four years ago.
His 2016 memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” dared to take flyover country seriously, causing shock waves in and out of polite society following Donald Trump’s electoral victory.
The tome disparaged the welfare state and addressed class more than race, connecting Vance’s impoverished youth to that of his neighbors. He had no patience for identity politics, and “Elegy” offered a respite from the toxic trend.
If the memoir hit shelves today, not four years ago, the outrage would have been stronger, more censorial.
Still, “Hillbilly Elegy” stood out for its honesty and the quality of the author’s voice. The media offered up some grudging respect, even while staying suspicious of Vance’s motives.
It also gave clueless progressives a new talking point – “is this why Trump won?”
The inevitable film adaptation, commandeered for Neflix by Oscar winner Ron Howard, strains to avoid more culture war dustups.
That’s probably wise.
A signifier here, a speech there, would have taken us right out of an otherwise compelling yarn. The messages Vance left us with are still plain to see, but the focus is on characters who rarely grace screens these days.
They’re not being mocked, mind you, nor glorified in condescending fashion. It’s a deeply personal saga that will register with anyone tied to their own flawed families.
And Vance’s clan has enough flaws to fill out a two-hour drama, no doubt.
Gabriel Basso (“Super 8”) stars as the adult Vance, a promising student hoping to secure his version of the American dream. That won’t be easy, as Howard’s film relentlessly flashes back to Vance’s rural upbringing.
He split his youth between homes in Ohio and Kentucky, but it’s the latter that left an indelible mark. The Vance clan grew up poor but proud, a loyal flock that took care of each other while dragging themselves down at the same time.
That spirit personifies Bev (Amy Adams), a single mother grappling with two children, a string of ne’er do well beaus and addiction.
An unrecognizable Glenn Close plays the rock of the family, a stern but loving gal named Mamaw (a nickname that sounds different every time it’s spoken).
Vance grew up and away, avoiding the tractor pull of family dysfunction. As a Yale law student, he stood on the cusp of success and a possible marriage with the supportive Usha (Freida Pinto). His family, in the grand “Godfather” tradition, keep pulling him back.
Could his meticulously arranged escape plan crumble?
Howard’s directorial career is marked by box office success, an Oscar triumph (“A Beautiful Mind”) and a lack of hard edges. Perhaps that’s why Vance, an executive producer on the film, and his colleagues chose Howard for the task at hand.
Another filmmaker might have jumped atop a soapbox throughout the story, weighing in on universal health care, government handouts, and more. Not Howard, despite his off-screen liberalism. His cinematic lens still captures the raw beauty of Appalachia as well as its dark underbelly.
Visually, “Hillbilly Elegy” hums with excitement, even in more tender moments.
The focus remains on the Vance/Bev/Mamaw triumvirate, with the respective actors delivering the necessary nuance. Bev is a force of nature, fiercely proud but unable to step back and see the wreckage she’s left behind.
Close’s Mamaw can be cold and cutting, but her big picture lessons matter. “Elegy” is a love letter to her comically arranged soul, a “thank you” for the consistent love she delivered.
Howard, bless his heart, leaves plenty of her unsavory tics intact, staring with the cigarette that dangles from her lip in every scene.
Basso’s Vance isn’t nearly as charismatic, or forceful, but his steadiness is a testament to his Kentucky values. He scarfs down a fried bologna sandwich without a hint of twee sentiment. It’s a taste of his childhood, and it’s still delicious all these years later.
He wouldn’t have it any other way.
Other scenes feel less authentic, like whenever the young Vance (Owen Asztalos) proves his clumsiness for all to see. Howard should know better than to stage these scenes in an equally clumsy fashion.
“Elegy” delves into Bev’s drug abuse, shown in brief but telling moments. The subject deserves far more attention from Hollywood, but Howard’s lens does a yeoman’s like job sketching out the opioid menace.
It’s fair to say “Hillbilly Elegy” should have been a limited series, not a feature-length movie. Howard does all he can to drop us into Vance’s different worlds, but a slower pace – with finer details – would have been more appropriate.
Vance’s ties to Usha, for example, scream for more screen time. We’re also told Bev was a stellar student, but that intelligence is bludgeoned by her miscues, told via awards season emoting.
As is, “Hillbilly Elegy” reminds us it’s impossible to completely sever family ties, no matter how far you travel or the glories within reach.
“Hillbilly Elegy” is in select theaters now and debuts on Netflix Nov. 24.
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