Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Little Boys Blue: “Wildlife” and “Hillbilly Elegy”

There’s nothing especially fresh about stories in which a sensitive young boy watches in quiet dismay as his family disintegrates all around him. Over the years there’ve been films galore on this subject. Like, for instance, 1941’s How Green Was My Valley, in which the family unit is destroyed by social forces and the exploitation of the land. In other films, personal weaknesses outflank social issues as the chief cause of the family’s failure to thrive. I’ve just seen two of these, both made quite recently.

Hillbilly Elegy, based on J.D. Vance’s popular memoir, is the latest release in the long line of work from director Ron Howard. Howard’s sensitivity toward actors is well known, as is his interest in the rural South, stemming from his own childhood portrayal of Opie from Mayberry on TV’s classic The Andy Griffith Show. I have not read Vance’s memoir, which traces his journey from Appalachia to Yale Law, but it apparently has a strong (and controversial) political bent, playing up the forces that contribute to the dark side of the American Dream.  In Howard’s hands, though, this is chiefly a multi-generational saga in which loyalty to the family unit is overridden by drug abuse and other horrors. We know that young J.D.’s mother Bev, once a nurse, is hopelessly addicted to opioids, and has even ventured into heroin. We know that as J.D. grows up he’s appalled by her behavior, at the same time that he glorifies his feisty salt-of-the-earth granny, Mamaw. But Mamaw is no saint, particularly when she signals her fury by setting Papaw on fire (!). Frankly, I didn’t see much onscreen motivation for any of this, no particular reason why these people are in this kind of psychic pain.

 The screenplay cuts between the young J.D. and his grown-up self, courting a gorgeous Indian-American and trying to make a good impression on big-league Washington law firms. Drawn from a select dinner party (he worries over which fork to use) straight back to the old homestead, he has to confront his mother’s full-blown overdose. That hot mess of a mother is played by Amy Adams (still looking for her first Oscar win). And playing the indomitable Mamaw is a transformed version of Glenn Close (still looking for her first Oscar win). The usually elegant Close now shows off a dumpy figure, frizzy salt-and-pepper hair, a foul mouth, and an ever-present cigarette. Sounds like Oscar bait to me.

 A smaller, more delicate project is 2018’s Wildlife, based on a novel by Richard Ford. It was adapted for the screen by actors Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan, with Dano making his directorial debut. The heartland family unit at the center of the drama consists of father Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), mother Jeanette (Carey Mulligan, spectacularly good), and son Joe. Jerry seems like a nice guy, but also someone who’s never grown up. Having lost yet another job, he gets it into his head to join a team of firefighters, risking their lives for a pittance to put out a stubborn mountain blaze nearby. In his absence, Jeanette evolves from a sweet, supportive wife into someone determined to make her own way in the world. This includes getting her own job, and then cozying up to a wealthy older man who adores her. Meanwhile poor young Joe stands by, trying desperately to keep his parents’ relationship intact.

 It’s a hugely sad but totally convincing portrait of a marriage splitting apart at the seams. Dano and Kazan, who starred together in another of their projects, the hilarious Ruby Sparks, deserve all the kudos they can get. 



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