Hopes are high from Ron Howard’s adaptation of JD Vance’s memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, especially since it is a riveting portrait of growing up in Appalachia under the influence of his opioid addict mother, Bev, and the profound support of his Mamaw. The book, since its publication in 2016, became a bestseller because it was able to reflect upon the lack of structure in that subculture, one that is desperately in need of attention from a unifying and understanding force. Howard’s film, unfortunately, offers nothing deeper than a possibly a film that glorifies poverty porn enough that it becomes an automatic shoo-in for the upcoming awards season. That’s what happens when you give the source material to a ‘happy’ filmmaker like Howard. Suddenly, even the most horrifying tale of bad parenting is just… schmaltz.
What is the story about?
In 2011, JD Vance (Gabriel Basso) was a gifted student of Yale Law School. He’s in his final week of interviews for the big Summer Internship, and at the orientation party, JD doesn’t know how to use the silverware properly. We don’t see how his poor beginnings afford him a Yale education and we don’t see much of a personality to him other than his traumatic and abusive past. Fourteen years earlier, teenage JD (Owen Asztalos) is dealing with his unstable mother Bev (Amy Adams) in Middletown, Ohio. His grandmother Mamaw (Glenn Close) is telling everyone to ‘perch and swivel’ at a family get-together across the state line in rural Kentucky. When the adult JD is summoned back home at the behest of his elder sister when Bev relapses again, we are pushed through a series of flashbacks of his single mum, trying to get through nursing school and raise the kids, supposedly misunderstood by her children who would much rather spend their time with Mamaw.
For however the characters are written, Close is excellent as Mamaw, lending some gravitas to the proceedings. Adams is also able to look and play the part of an addict who has reached rock-bottom. The sheer narrative makes sure that both women are overpowering the other performers although Haley Bennett has a welcome restraint and Asztalos also does a fine job.
Music & Other Departments
Hillbilly Elegy’s production design is a bit gimmicky and very overstated. But the film has been shot well and scored very well by Hans Zimmer who gives it the right Bluegrass feel.
Close’s performance is sensational and the last twenty minutes of the movie which take the obvious feel-good turn of overcoming adversity are something that Howard is obviously most comfortable with. They don’t really make sense overall but they are lightyears better than the general kicking and screaming of the rest of the film.
It is obvious that Bev is an extremely emotionally and physically abusive mother, and frankly, I am done with movies that highlight such relationships with the ethos of having to hold on to them forever just because. Abuse is real and there ain’t nothing feel-good about it.
Did I enjoy it?
No. It is a very melodramatic film that could be something that would be on the Lifetime channel in the afternoon. Why is this on Netflix, and why is it Oscar-bait?
Do I recommend it?
No. Close is fantastic but that’s not reason enough to endure it.