(director/writer: Ron Howard; screenwriters: book by J.D. Vance/Vanessa Taylor; cinematographer: Maryse Alberti; editor: James D. Wilcox; music: Hans Zimmer, David Fleming; cast: Amy Adams (Bev), Glenn Close (Mamaw), Gabriel Basso (adult J.D. Vance), Haley Bennett (Lindsay), Freida Pinto (Usha), Bo Hopkins (Papaw), Owen Asztalos (teenage Vance), Jesse C. Boyd, (Matt); Runtime: 117; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Ron Howard/ Brian Grazer/Karen Lunder; Netflix; 2020)
“ The weak film kills the spirit and flavor of the strong book.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
An overwrought misfire prestige adaptation of J.D. Vance’s 2016 memoir by the first-rate writer Vanessa Taylor and the mediocre mainstream director Ron Howard (“Apollo 13” /“A Beautiful Mind”).
After the bland hero tells us his hard-luck childhood story of growing up poor and in a dysfunctional house in Appalachia and moving from Kentucky to Middletown, Ohio, there’s nothing else to ponder in this vacant film, told with no subtlety and too many sermons about the importance of family values.
The book garnered attention because it was released during the surprising presidential win of the bigot Trump. It gained popularity for its possible insights into Trump’s popularity with rural, uneducated voters, as it told of their way of life, their values and their culture that the con man tapped into and artificially passed himself off as one of them. But the weak film kills the spirit and flavor of the strong book, that aggressively connected the dots and tried to tell things as they really were.
In the book the hillbilly came across as believable, in the film it came off as gross. It got unintentional laughs, as its serious family scenes were unfortunately taken as comedy sketches–that’s how badly it was directed.
The family drama is told in a non-linear story-line (with multiple flashbacks within flashbacks, causing more confusion than clarity). J.D. Vance tells his life story as a geeky teenager (Owen Asztalos) and as an adult by Gabriel Bassot.
After a troubled and poverty-ridden childhood, Vance enlists in the Marines to get away from his psychologically unfit re-married, histrionic, parasite, argumentative heroin addict, bad mom, Bev (Amy Adams). He does a tour of duty in Iraq and after the service the Ohio State grad attends the prestigious Yale Law School. We learn only that he dates a smart Yale fellow student Usha (Freida Pinto), who is a member of the privileged class. For some reason the filmmaker never tells us how he makes this improbable leap to an elite college from his humble background.
While being interviewed for an internship at an established law firm, J.D. receives a call from his sis to return home to Ohio for a family crisis regarding his heroin addict mom overdose. The difficult to deal with Bev refuses any help (turning down a chance to go into rehab) and the hard-pressed J.D. must now handle the problem without the guidance of his tough-love grandmother, Mamaw (Glenn Close). She was always there for him and his older sis, Lindsay (Haley Bennett), to help them navigate their way through the family’s toxic environment, and raised them in her home (a block away from mom’s) when their druggie mom couldn’t function. It must be decided now on how to care for the broken-down Bev and who will do it, as she has no health insurance or income. This might have been a big problem for the family, but she was such a miserable character that the audience could probably care less about her. And for that matter, the same could be said about their feelings for this messy film.
If there’s anything positive to say about the dismal film, it’s that I enjoyed the unrecognizable Glenn Close (heavily made up and in a wig), who should be lauded for her feisty performance as an eccentric hillbilly granny and be rewarded with a Best Supporting Actress nomination.
REVIEWED ON 12/4/2020 GRADE: C