There’s a scene in Ron Howard’s new “Hillbilly Elegy” that approaches the quiet dignity I wish the rest of the movie had. Glenn Close stands in a doorway. She’s playing Mamaw, the proud Appalachian grandmother of the high schooler who will eventually write the memoir on which the film is based. Mamaw accepts a free dinner from Meals on Wheels. And while it pains her to do so, she asks for more food. The delivery kid blinks, embarrassed. But he bends the rules a little and the two connect over a small but meaningful act of charity.
Depicting the complex realities of poverty — not just its hollowed-out emptiness but attendant emotions of shame and despair — has always been tricky. That’s doubly true for those employed by Hollywood.
Filmmakers in Europe and Asia have stronger track records. Italy has its earthy tradition of neorealism, bringing us midcentury heartbreakers like “Bicycle Thieves” and “Umberto D.” In India, Satyajit Ray made the humane miniatures of his 1950s Apu Trilogy, set just a hair’s breadth away from destitution. Socially committed voices like the British Ken Loach (“I, Daniel Blake”) and the Belgian Dardenne brothers (“Rosetta”) have each won Cannes’s top prize, the Palme d’Or, twice.