Hillbilly Elegy

Gutsy female lead performances lift all boats in this tale of backwoods America that is both vilified and embraced by a polarised public

M, 116 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

Hillbilly Elegy, the book about growing up among white working-class communities in the Appalachians, was published in 2016. It was the year that Donald Trump became US President, a disruptive event if ever there was one.

Read avidly by a public searching for answers that helped explain the success of Trumpism, it became a New York Times bestseller. And it gave its author, J. D. Vance, profile as a social commentator, explaining Americans to themselves.

How could someone like Trump occupy the highest office in the land? Perhaps the autobiography of a man like Vance who came to have a foot in both camps, establishment and anti-establishment, could make some sense of it.

He eventually left the hill country of Kentucky for the hallowed halls of Yale and then joined the financial services industry in LA, but he was an unusual case.

His family home was in Middletown, Kentucky. J. D. was the son of a single mother who took heroin, stole meds from the hospital where she worked as a nurse, and unsurprisingly couldn’t hold a job. Eventually his grandmother took over primary care, and against the odds he finished high school and took a law degree.

The narrative is simply structured, moving backwards and forwards between J. D’s teenage and young adult selves, played by Owen Asztalos and Gabriel Basso, respectively.

Scenes of young J. D. growing up with his sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett) in their utterly chaotic household, is intercut with his older self, moving away from Middleton and building a new life with his supportive girlfriend and wife-to-be, former law school classmate, Usha, played by Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire).

Bent and bewigged, Glenn Close is almost unrecognizable as family matriarch Mamaw, J. D.’s maternal grandmother. As tough as old boots, with a ciggie permanently planted between her lips, Mamaw understands that she has to act to save her grandson.

One day, she just marches in, announcing she is taking J. D. away. His mother, her daughter Beverley (Amy Adams), was doing such a terrible job.

Basso, as the older version of J. D., has a more conventional and less challenging part to play than the actor who plays his younger self.

As the young J. D. Vance, Owen Asztalos articulates the complexity of his love-hate relationship with his mother. Bev was a woman who dragged him from one live-in relationship to the next, substituted his urine specimen sample for her own when she had been on drugs, and thought nothing of making a spectacle of herself in the street while she was having a meltdown. Family violence remained an ongoing tradition.

Volatile and quick-tempered, Beverley is also acutely aware of the opportunities that she has missed out on. Adams gives a remarkable performance here.

Curiously, Hillbilly Elegy is as much the story of J. D. as the story of his mother Beverley, who couldn’t realise her own promise as dux of her school year. J. D. is dangerously close to convincing himself, until Mamaw steps in, that his mother’s grades got her nowhere, so why should he make any effort?

Director Ron Howard, a versatile filmmaker across a range of genre, has a long list of acting credits among his body of work. His unobtrusive directorial style allows scope for actors to do what they do, as they have here in Hillbilly Elegy.

Howard has form in bringing out the best in his actors in films such as A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13 and Cinderella Man, too. I think one of his underrated triumphs is the film Rush about the rivalry between Formula One drivers played by Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl.

Hillbilly Elegy has the familiar clean style and high production values that I associate with Howard.

The score composed by Hans Zimmer, in collaboration with David Fleming, is more subtle than the usual from Zimmer. And French director of cinematography, Maryse Alberti, has struck a balance between the need for intimacy and wider statement.

Upward mobility in the US, is not like it used to be and if the American dream still works well for some, it certainly doesn’t for others.

This is ultimately a family drama, and the remarkable, inspiring tale of a young man, seriously disadvantaged as a complete establishment outsider, who manages to do good.

First published in the Canberra Times on  14 November 2020

Featured image: Superb performances from Glenn Close and Amy Adams in Hillbilly Elegy. Courtesy Netflix

Vice

M, 2 hrs 13 mins

All cinemas

Review by © Jane Freebury

3 stars

 

Controversial and reviled, American politician Dick Cheney is fair game for filmmaker Adam McKay who had his say on bad corporate behaviour in The Big Short, in 2015. Very entertaining it was too. A deft explanation of how the global financial crisis came to pass, leaving us in no doubt about the amoral behaviour in financial services that had such a big hand in it.

For former Saturday Night Live writer, McKay, a natural satirist who knows exactly how to take down anybody and anything, Cheney presents rich material.

Despite a long career in politics – notably as a chief of staff, a former defence secretary and a vice president  – and a key role in US strategies leading to and after the Iraq War, Cheney has apparently had little to say for himself.

Vice gleefully and unreservedly makes the most of this with Christian Bale as Cheney, big as a whale, filling the screen. However, little else emerges from this opaque political personality, who is presented yet again as a shadowy space that others have become accustomed to filling.

I went along to Vice to get the goods, as I had in The Big Short. Who was this man, committed Republican and Washington insider during the most controversial and destructive period in recent US political history? On the man and his view of the world, Vice offers scant insight.

Turning to the internet, I found there was more to him. It’s interesting to see that aside from a penchant for pastries, a predisposition to heart attacks and getting pulled over while driving under the influence when young, he has been elected five times to the US House of Representatives.

In its errors of omission, Vice would have us believe that Cheney was a bit of a no-hoper, a no-hoper with an ambitious wife. Someone who somehow or other struck it lucky after he failed at Yale (twice actually), after which he took a job as a linesman, before he proceeded, inexplicably, to an internship in the US administration.

Actually, Cheney has two degrees in political science, and was once registered for a doctorate. His formidable wife Lynne, played here by Amy Adams, went on to get hers, and has subsequently written a raft of books on American history.

Coy disclaimers at the start of Vice, that they did their ‘f—-ing best’ to present the facts, only sidesteps the issue of omission here.

Entertaining and audacious it is, with a brave central performance from Bale (also in The Big Short) as the dubious ideologue and with terrific support from Adams as his wife and Steve Carrell as Donald Rumsfeld. Much of the early low-angle camerawork ensures that everyone looks their least attractive. While Sam Rockwell, apparently without any prosthetic at all, nails it as George W Bush.

So who, in an unfortunate sign of these times, wants to complain when a film is this entertaining? It depends on what you are looking for.

Ultimately, Vice, in the style of broad brush cartoon, rehearses the widely held view that Cheney is an opaque politician, a behind-the-scenes operator who is insufficiently accountable. We have been aware of this reputation for a long time so more insight into his way of thinking, his world view, would have been welcome.

I thought that in the era of fake news we were all agreed that the facts must matter again. So, what has happened here?

Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, the Film Critics Circle of Australia (Critics’ Voices) and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 (Arts Cafe)