Americans make their unsteady way in Hillbilly Elegy and Princess of the Row

Pre-teenager Alicia (played by actor Tayler Buck) and her disabled veteran father Bo (Edi Gathegi) are people nobody cares about. Or so it seems at first glance. To observe their daily struggle to get along in the world from one moment to the next in director Van Maximilian Carlson’s anxious character study Princess of the Row is to feel an oppressive weight that never really lightens up.

Sergeant Bo, who suffers from a brain injury and PTSD, lives in a tent on Los Angeles’ Skid Row. A cloudy right eye and his nervous tics—there’s some business with a fly swatter, and Bo prefers to eat all his meals sitting on the ground—are a sure-fire warning to every social worker or emergency medical tech in range that he’s primed and ready to explode. When you’re a raggedy-looking homeless man prone to violent body language, comparatively few people will want to help you, even if you’re a wounded ex-warrior. You’re far more likely to get killed by someone who doesn’t understand—especially if you’re Black.

In the tent with Bo—when she isn’t busy dropping into and out of the lives of a procession of foster families and caregivers—is 12-year-old Alicia, a sensitive young woman with a concise wish list: a loving family, a long red gown and a pet unicorn. But most of all, Alicia wishes people would just leave her and her dad alone in peace.

Young actor Buck, a regular juvie presence on TV, turns filmmaker Carlson’s familiar down-on-their-luck family story (co-written with Alan Shawn Austin) into a tough-but-tender fairytale in its bottomed-out setting. No matter how many slings and arrows Alicia faces—a cruel aunt, a gang of bullies, the stressed-out folks at the VA hospital, a social worker turned pimp, a well-meaning-but-clueless foster family headed by Martin Sheen—she persists in her fantasy. When pressed, she volunteers, “I want to be a writer.” Not even the blurted-out knee-jerk reaction to that ambition by a thoughtless would-be foster parent deflects Alicia’s will to survive on her own terms. Both Buck and Gathegi deserve awards for their gratifying performances.

Princess of the Row illustrates all the things that happen to you when you’re poor. The essential question of “Who’s going to help them?” remains unanswered. Will they be all right? Will any of us? Don’t look to this movie for easy answers to social problems. The acting is its own reward.

In Ron Howard’s film adaptation of J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy, a young man from a hard-scrabble Kentucky-Ohio background plans on moving up in the world by getting a good job as a lawyer, but first he needs to set a few things straight: Don’t call us “redneck,” “white trash,” or “hillbilly.” Otherwise, the biggest job for ex-Marine and recent Yale graduate J.D. (played by Gabriel Basso) is keeping an eye on his immature, irresponsible, impulsive mother Bev (Amy Adams), an opioid addict seemingly in a hurry to loudly ruin every good move anyone in her family tries to make. Where Basso’s J.D. tends to recede into the background, Adams’ Bev gnaws her way into Troublesville with a vengeance. She’s the family disgrace that never quits.

Director Howard and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor march confidently into their portrait of low-rent bad luck and destiny. Not since I, Tonya or Citizen Ruth or maybe Gummo or even Deliverance, have we been treated to such a gaudy display of miscalculated, down-scale exuberance (read: clichés). And yet the feel-good quotient is never very far from the surface, always obvious and very easy to digest. In that respect Elegy is a genuine Ron Howard award-seeking holiday turkey, with SUV-sized acting giblets from Adams and Glenn Close (as J.D.’s irrepressible grandmother). Either that, or it’s a fried baloney sandwich of a character study from the heart of flyover territory. It may cause indigestion either way.

“Princess of the Row” opens Nov. 27 in theaters, and on digital platforms and VOD.”. Hillbilly Elegy” opens Nov. 24 on Netflix.

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