“Hillbilly Elegy” & “Happiest Season”- Dual Review

Thanksgiving 2020 has come and gone and we find ourselves in the midst of the holiday inbetween, a time of manic department store purging, an endless stream of cheesy Hallmark Christmas movies, fattening yourself with cookies galore, and the seasonal onslaught of Oscar-bait pictures. The films we’ll be looking at today can easily be swept up into two of these categories. In reality, though, neither one is a perfect fit to their type. In some ways this is a good thing, in others, not so much.

Let’s start with the not-so-much. Hillbilly Elegy, directed by Ron Howard, is a heavy drama adapted from J.D. Vance’s memoir of the same name. The film explores three generations of Vance’s family, namely J.D. himself (played dually by Gabriel Basso and Owen Asztalos), his mother Bev (Amy Adams), and grandmother “Mamaw” (Glenn Close). It jumps back and forth between J.D. as an adult and his childhood in rural Ohio. Through both timelines we witness he reconciliation with the past, and his reevaluation of his relationships with his neurotic mother, headstrong grandmother, and his culture.

This film has the makings of an award contender- strong acting, an accomplished director, story material ripe for melodrama. Unfortunately, even with that trifecta in tow, it fails to make a firm impression. The film shoots for high emotional hoops with throws that don’t feel authentic. The screenplay doesn’t allow enough time for character development right from the get-go, and as a result the characters feel less like real people and more like archetypes you’d see in a drama like this.

Granted, these are well-acted archetypes. Both Amy Adams and Glenn Close are acting their butts off and do great in their respective roles. The actors who play the older and younger versions of J.D. are also good. Howard’s direction is solid and, on purely a technical level, it’s a well-made movie. It’s the narrative itself that isn’t well put together. Plenty of other films have used the timeline juxtaposition schtick fine, but here the scenes seem randomized, like random strips of paper that were pulled out of a hat and slapped onto a piece of cardboard. They don’t lead much to anything. As the movie drew to a close I found myself wondering what exactly I was supposed to take away from it. My guess is it’s meant to be one of those “don’t be ashamed of where you come from” stories, but this catharsis isn’t made clear by the end. I definitely see what the filmmakers were going for. The screenplay just does it no favors. The sore lack of development makes it hard to get invested in the story, and therefore the film feels like a slog to get through.

Cosmic Grade: 2.6/5 Stars

two women laughing
Courtesy of Sony Pictures via Facebook

And then there’s Happiest Season, which couldn’t be more of a polar opposite. Written by Clea Duvall and Mary Holland, this holiday feel-gooder debuted on Hulu on Thanksgiving eve and arrived just in time for the Christmas season. Kirsten Stewart and Mackenzie Davis star as Abby and Harper, a couple who’ve been dating for nearly a year. They agree to visit Harper’s conservative family for Christmas, but there’s one major hiccup- they don’t know Harper is a lesbian. Harper insists that she’ll come out to her family after Christmas, but until then, they’ll need to save face. As a result, Abby, who’d planned on proposing to Harper by New Years, finds herself playing the part of Harper’s straight platonic roommate. The women do their best to keep up the charade as the holiday quickly approaches, but they soon realize their secret may not stay secret for long.

I’ve said it numerous times before and I’ll say it numerous times again- I am not a rom-com fan. I’ve warmed up a little to the genre recently, but only by a hair. The vast majority of them are still too artificially superficial for my taste. At first glance, it seemed like Happiest Season would conform to that spectrum. It certainly had that modern rom-com look- glossy, polished,with affluent and extremely non-average-looking people. Though as the classic saying goes, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”. So I gave it a chance, checked it out, and found myself pleasantly surprised.

Despite the cinematography having a Hallmark movie glow, the film’s other attributes never feel forced or fake. It’s genuinely funny. Mary Holland, who plays one of Harper’s sisters (and who co-wrote the script), and Dan Levy are especially hilarious in this. On top of that, the characters feel like actual human beings. You’re invested in them, you can relate to them, you care about them. Even when some of them make dumb or furstrating decisions, you still understand where they’re coming from.What works the most is what should- the romance. The romance between Abby and Harper (played fantastically by Stewart and Davis by the way) is believable. The actresses have good chemistry and the conflict they’re facing is legit. I tend to be cruelly cynical with rom-coms, nine times out of ten expecting (oftentimes hoping) for the romantic leads to permanently call it quits. Not the case with Happiest Season. I was actually rooting for Abby and Harper from start to finish, no matter how many cliches the plot runs into. Okay, maybe cliches isn’t the right word. Narrative-wise, the story is pretty formulaic. It flows the way you might expect it to flow and wings up where you’d expect it to wind up. Though DuVall and Holland keep things fresh by tweaking the genre tropes just enough to make the formula tolerable. Overall, the film is a sweet, poignant joy to watch. It teeters on the edge of being a run-of-the-mill holiday rom-com, but avoids falling into that trap by having humanity, which I’m hard-pressed to say about any other films like it.

Cosmic Grade: 3.8/5 Stars

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