For those of who do not know I spent over twenty years living in the south. There I was a G-d Dam Yankee. Side bar: a Yankee is not a term of endearment. It is for anyone born north of the Mason-Dixon line, a Dam Yankee is used to describe someone who now moved to the south, and a G-d Dam Yankee is for that person to have brought his family! I digress.
I must admit that after “awhile” [southern expression for an undetermined period of time] the “culture” did grow on me. Maybe it was landing in Austin Texas on July 4th, 1978 just in time to go down to attend Willie Nelson’s picnic on the banks of Lake Travis or maybe it was when I attended my first Houston “Live Fat Stock” Rodeo in the Astrodome. Not really sure but it did grow on me.
My time there was not limited to the major cities but also in small “piss ant” towns where a train track divided the whites and blacks. It was a decade after the civil right act, but change was often hard to see. Being a Yankee I could not help seeing the remnants of the “old south”. Hell, Ray Charles could have seen it and he was blind and dead! Somehow, I managed to work around it all and stayed.
I would joke when I relocated to Seattle WA when people would ask me why I moved, and my answer would be that when my then ten-year-old daughter came home from school one day and said “Y’all” I said lets pack.
Now twenty-four years later mostly only the fond memories and the quaintness of it all remains, but I do have a different set of lenses on the south than most non-natives. During COVID and binge-watching TV I recently saw two southern based movies that said it all for me. Sadly, I can say that I have met many of these characters before in the flesh. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE), alcoholism, drug addiction, religiosity and poverty all rolled up into two movies. The common thread of the two movies is that one person in the system gets out, escaped to the north through education in search of a better life both for different reasons and coming back home for a family emergency only to be triggered by a lifetime of trauma. Proving once again that everywhere you go there you are, and you can’t lastingly outrun this stuff. The plot thickens…
So take a look. Watch them if you can.
Hillbilly Elegy is a 2020 American drama film directed by Ron Howard, from a screenplay by Vanessa Taylor, based on the 2016 memoir of the same name by J. D. Vance. The film stars Glenn Close, Amy Adams, Gabriel Basso, Haley Bennett, Freida Pinto, Bo Hopkins, and Owen Asztalos, and follows a Yale law student who must return to his family in Ohio after a family emergency.
After buying the rights to Vance’s book in 2017, Imagine announced Howard as the film’s director. Netflix acquired the distribution rights in January 2019, and much of the cast joined that April. Filming took place from June through August in Georgia and Ohio.
Hillbilly Elegy was released in select theaters in the United States on November 11, 2020, then digitally on Netflix on November 24. The film was negatively received by critics; it was criticized for its screenplay and storytelling, though the performances of the cast received some praise. For my money, the critics missed the point.
The film opens in Jackson, Kentucky in 1997. J.D. is looking back to this time, his teenage years. He is visiting his family with his grandparents and Mom, Bev. They go back home to southern Ohio, which is a long, long way away from Cleveland and Columbus if you get my drift.
Fourteen years later, J.D. is attending Yale and working three jobs. He is dating a young woman, Usha [nonwhite & not Christian]. She has a summer internship in Washington D.C. and J.D. hopes to get one there as well. He attends an event to network in hopes of landing the internship. He gets a call from his sister, Lindsay because his mom is in the hospital after overdosing on heroin. Lindsay is overwhelmed by the situation as she works and has three children. She asks J.D. to come home, which he feels conflicted about as it is interview week at Yale. He also remembers growing up and the conflicts he had with his mom, who always has been mentally and emotionally unstable.
Back in 2011 J.D. starts to drive to Ohio. He arrives at the hospital as his mom is yelling at the nurse. She will be discharged because she has no health insurance. J.D. is called and offered an interview for a internship back at school. He has to be back east the following morning while trying to find a drug and alcohol treatment center for his mom. He is the classic hero child. J.D. pays for her rehab but mom refuses to do it as soon as he pays. He has grown up in this constant bombardment of trauma. After high school J.D. was looking for a way out so he joins the Marines, and then uses the G.I. Bill to go to college.
The Glenn Close role as the glue matriarch is deserving of Oscar consideration. She does “Mawmaw” [southern for grandma] perfect with no holes bared. Her performance is worth the watch all be itself. Trying to deal in a sane way with insane people as always leads to more crazy. And all this against the backdrop of the opiate epidemic. This is life imitating Art!
The second film is Uncle Frank. A 2020 American comedy-drama film written, directed, and co-produced by Alan Ball. The film stars Paul Bettany and Sophia Lillis. Set in the 1970s, Uncle Frank is a road movie about a gay man who confronts his past.
It had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on January 25, 2020. It was released on November 25, 2020, by Amazon Studios.
In 1973, 18-year-old Beth Bledsoe moves from her home in Creekville, South Carolina to attend college in New York City. Her uncle Frank Bledsoe is a professor at the college and is the relative she feels closest to as he is more refined and thoughtful than the rest of the family. However, when she shows up unannounced to a party at Frank’s apartment with a boy she likes, she discovers that Frank is secretly gay and has been living with a man named Walid (“Wally” to Americanize his Middle eastern name) for over ten years. Frank rejects the sexual advances of the boy Beth came with, then cares for Beth when she gets too drunk. He pleads with her not to tell anyone else in the family his secret, and she agrees.
The next day, Beth’s grandfather and Frank’s father, Daddy Mac, dies of a sudden heart attack. Frank agrees to drive Beth back to South Carolina for the funeral. That is the set up for a “cultural collision”
Along their journey, Frank has flashbacks to his teenage years and a sexual relationship he had with another boy named Samuel; his father caught them in bed together and called Frank an abomination against God. To cope with these memories, Frank begins secretly drinking; he asks Beth not to tell Wally as Frank is a recovering alcoholic. This convergence of the here and now with the trauma of early childhood experiences [ACE] leads to a powerful conclusion, all against the backdrop of “southern charm”.
These two movies will leave you thinking for sure and that’s a good thing.
As we all try to not become statistics in our communal war with COVID and as we collectively are in the middle of a vastly different version of Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanza lets remember to stay safe, sane and sober. If the COVID isolation is leading you to places you do not wish to go and need a sounding board, feel free to contact me.
You are not alone and remember misery is optional.