MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Quite some time ago I pastored a United Methodist Church in Akron. The congregation included a large number of families who first migrated north for jobs with tire companies and decided to stay. Many of them still made regular visits south to Kentucky to keep in touch with relatives and friends. It was a blue-collar kind of world with a history of hard living and a few marriages that didn’t work out the first time, but I came to love hearing the stories and appreciating their faith journeys.
When J.D. Vance’s (played onscreen by Gabriel Basso and Owen Asztalos) Hillbilly Elegy was published in 2016, I discovered an original voice and a tale that told a personal memoir about rising from poverty, growing in maturity through military service in Iraq with the Marines, and eventually attending The Ohio State University and receiving a law degree from Yale. While his family life was filled with struggles, including his mother Bev’s opioid addiction, his intimate bonds with his Mamaw (Close) and sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett) kept him close to family, accompanied by the support of a Yale classmate (Freida Pinto) who would eventually become his wife.
What a story! I couldn’t imagine anyone making a terrible movie from that source material.
There is no need to imagine anymore. Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy is that movie.
The film begins with a flashback to J.D.’s childhood (where he has to learn how to take a stand against the local bullies). From that point on, Hillbilly Elegy jumps back and forth in time (from youth to adulthood), with trips from his hometown in Middletown, Ohio (on I-75 between Dayton and Cincinnati) to his grandparent’s home in Kentucky. There is a lot of ground to cover in Vance’s coming-of-age story, but the film opts to pump up the volume on the trauma and sidestep the heart and soul of the narrative. There is barely a storyline to follow. It doesn’t help to have the camera pulled in for tight shots during most of the running time, creating a sense of claustrophobia.
Amy Adams and Glenn Close turn in good performances as J.D.’s mother and grandmother, but they are both underserved by the screenplay. Adams has a few too many meltdown scenes, and Close’s Mamaw is first depicted as a tough-talking malcontent and later as a wise sage; I couldn’t reconcile the two versions. In place of real emotional depth, the film opts to include a stirring hospital deathbed scene and some end credit updates (accompanied by actual family photos) to let us know that everything turned out fine in the end.
Hillbilly Elegy was a huge hit with library book clubs, so there are bound to be plenty of copies available. Read the book instead.
Halo and Pitchfork Rating:
Three halos: Family ties that bind; or how to turn a good book into a two-hour endurance run.
Four pitchforks: Hard living folks; constant feudin’, fussin’ and a-fightin’; drug addiction.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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