Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Hillbilly Elegy


Yale law student JD Vance (Gabriel Basso) is juggling his studies at an Ivy League and several jobs to make ends meet. In the hopes of getting an internship that will bring him closer to girlfriend Usha (Freida Pinto) and alleviate his financial issues, he attends a networking dinner where he gets to meet the top bosses of big firms across the country. Just when he is about to secure a final interview slot, he receives a call from his sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett) who breaks the news that their mother Beverly (Amy Adams) has just been admitted to a hospital due to heroin overdose. Forced to go on a long drive to help his family, he takes a trip down memory lane, from his humble beginnings in Ohio to his growth as a human being heavily influenced by his hillbilly history mainly through the guidance of his late Mamaw (Glenn Close).

This film is a bit difficult to watch because of the non-linear plot. Past and present flow through one another without rhyme or reason, and we get to see both a younger JD (Owen Asztalos) and his current self as if in a tug-of-war for the role of narrator. It just so happens that younger JD’s story is more interesting to watch than that of his present self, perhaps because of Asztalos’ many scenes with Close. As such, the flow of storytelling is rather chaotic and kind of all over the place.

Adams gives another Oscar-worthy performance as single mother Bev, both in her early years and at present. The character is quite polarizing, to say the least. On one hand you are not sure if you hate her because she is such a train wreck of a character, meaning the screenplay is to blame. On the other hand, it could also be because Adams totally commits to the role which makes you kind of pity and loathe the character at the same time. In any case, Bev is not given any redemption arc. Her happy ending comes in the form of an epilogue through real-life photos, not really giving Adams the chance to salvage her character onscreen.

If there is anyone in the cast who really shines, it must be Close as Mamaw. As the headstrong family matriarch, she makes most of her scenes with the young JD so endearing to watch. Nobody will blame you if you end up missing your own grandma in the process. Mamaw is the voice of reason in this narrative, which is maybe the reason why you miss her every time she is not there. In a way, you end up getting invested more in her story than the narrator himself. Too bad her screen time is limited because this is not her story to tell after all. But hey, I would gladly watch a Mamaw spinoff if they plan to develop one!

As for JD himself, Basso suffers from lack of interesting subplots. Sure, we love underdogs and people who persevere to get far in life. The thing is, he shares most of JD’s story with Asztalos, who attacks the character with just the right mix of innocence and persistence. In the battle between a coming-of-age tale and a grown-up’s struggles with adulting, the former always tends to outshine the latter. Perhaps it has something to do with nostalgia and reconnecting with one’s roots, which is what this film is all about anyway.

Much of the backlash the storyline, both in literary and film form, had to endure is the very depiction of being a hillbilly. Some think that this narrative does not really represent them, while others believe that it is still a worthy attempt on getting their stories out there. For someone who does not hail from America, what you will eventually connect to is the concept of family, which is universal enough to transcend interstate and international boundaries. Shortcomings in storytelling aside, Hillbilly Elegy can still strike a chord through this angle. You can’t choose your family but for many, it is all that matters. You don’t have to be a hillbilly to relate to that, being a human being should suffice.

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