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Red, White and Water

Red, White and Water “It didn’t start with her.” That’s the most penetrating thing said about Bev (Amy Adams), Red, White and Water the frazzled maternal trainwreck who makes everyone’s life miserable in Ron Howard’s “Hillbilly Elegy.” Bev is a parasite, an addict, a narcissist, and a desperate user of others, notably her own family. In a word, she’s a mess. Her son, J.D. (Gabriel Basso), attends Yale Law School and is in the midst of auditioning for a summer internship, but now he’s got to go back to Middletown, Ohio, the Midwestern backwater he’s from, and jump through hoops to get his mother into rehab. He foots the bill for a week-long stay on four credit cards, only to learn that Bev has no interest in going into rehab. A former nurse who trashed her career when she roller-skated, high as a kite, through the corridors of a hospital, she’s been shooting heroin, and she seems to be going down fast. She doesn’t want help; she’d rather stew in her toxic juice of rage and self-pity. But no, it didn’t start with her. Does it ever?

“Hillbilly Elegy,” an adaptation of J.D. Vance’s 2016 memoir, is about an extended family mired in dysfunction, though the reason the book became a number-one bestseller is that it took us into the realm of something far more exotic than mere dysfunction. Bev Vance and her family come from Breathitt County, Kentucky, and the book was a deep dive into the mystique of Appalachia — the back-country values of tradition and loyalty, but also the poverty and violence and addiction, the abuse and social disintegration that have been accepted, far too readily, as part of that legacy. “Hillbilly Elegy,” in other words, was a primal X-ray into the soul of Trump country (or, at least, a central part of it), and the book’s appeal is that it showcased that culture in a way that was both voyeuristic and intimate. “Step right up,” it seemed to be saying. Here’s what the modern American hillbilly experience is really about: the good, the bad, and the backwoods ugly.

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