Owen Asztalos Gabriel Basso Amy Adams Glenn Close Freida Pinto Haley Bennett
After a ride touring the horrors of addiction combined with credulousness, Ron Howard has made me feel as if I’d been there. One watches this like a child in the drama, pulled in, but helpless to do anything about what is going on onscreen.
The main character, J.D. (Asztalos as the younger and Ballo as the older) is looking back on his life as a small boy growing up in the hills of Kentucky into a family strong on loyalty and responsibility toward one another, but susceptible to addictions. Based on the memoir of the real J.D. Vance, it is indeed an elegy to the people who brought him up—some of whom have passed on. It shows how strong family connections can be—especially if family has been its primary value—when this has been drilled into a child throughout. The film likewise shows the sense of guilt that is a strain running through it.
Young J.D. lives with his mother Bev (Adams) and older sister Lindsay (Bennett), with Grandma (Close) ever present. He’s a bit clumsy, and this can trigger a crisis with his mother who is usually on a fine edge. Susceptible to stress, she might take out after anyone, with no thought of the consequences. Earlier in life, J.D. has been able to count on Grandma to rescue him from his mother’s rages, and later, his older sister Lindsay (read parent-child), who has become Bev’s primary responsibility.
Through all this, with some luck and some of his Grandma’s guidance, J.D. has managed to make it to law school. It’s a completely different world than he’s been used to (Uh…what fork do I use among three on the table?!), and he has some sense about the cloistered world of the Ivy League and how he doesn’t fit in.
Luck often plays a role in success stories, and here one piece of luck is in J.D.’s romantic relationship with Usha (Pinto), a woman of Indian descent who has all the empathy and good sense lacking in his early life. Intuitively, he grasps how different and how healing she can be, worrying that his troubles will drive her off. As you watch this film, their interactions will serve as flight into reasonableness away from the cacophony of J.D.’s circumstances.
Ron Howard has established himself as a film director who can empathize with all kinds of people with major problems (e.g., A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man) and here he sheds light on not only the ethos of “hillbilly” families, but also the plague of addiction that has hit them so hard—opioids. They are vulnerable because without the essential skills of parenting, open communication, and reasoning, families are unable to cope with the thrill of the moment, peer pressure, and economic need that prey upon them. It’s a tale that needs to be told dramatically to get the point across.
Glenn Close is her usual wonder to behold, almost unrecognizable here as a wizened old woman who has done the best she can, considering her life story. She conveys crusty warmth and encouragement, somehow getting through to the hapless J.D. Because of the role she plays—despite how well she does it—Amy Adams is not so sympathetic, although seeing her in the grip of addiction makes one more empathic with those currently in its throes. Gabriel Basso, Freida Pinto, and Haley Bennett round out a well-chosen cast to tell this poignant story.
Hard to watch, but a beautifully composed film that is eloquent in its depiction of the effect of drugs on an entire family through generations.
Grade: A By Donna R. Copeland