Hillbilly Elegy Netflix Movie Review

An uneven and hollow Southern tale that wastes Glenn Close’s stellar performance

Rhea Srivastava -

Hillbilly Elegy Netflix Movie Review
Platform
Netflix
Format
Movie Rated
Genre
DRAMA
Language

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. 

 

Analysis

If one was to take the now generic stereotype of the term ‘Hillbilly’ seriously, as it seems that the writers of this one have, we’d have a generalised stereotyped movie. And we do. For an ode to the South, Hillbilly Elegy just feeds into that dirty and pathetic portrait of the working class in America where most members of the Vance family are one-dimensional and somewhat clones of each other. The addicts are trying to find a quick fix in the bathroom, the hero is being bullied repeatedly, and grandma is smoking a cigarette and telling the kid to make something of himself else he’ll end up in the same shit as his mum. 
 
There’s a lot to say if we went into mum’s story. After all, she was at the top of her class and worked her way through nursing school as a single mother with two kids. She dealt with a severely abusive childhood herself, and her kids did end up successful, in spite of her addiction. Bev is now clean for many years. But we don’t really see any layers to her as a junkie. Every time she takes the scene, she is usually losing her mind, kicking and/or screaming at her children. She has no contribution towards (seemingly) nor does she have an opinion on her son’s life. 
 
The film goes back and forth between two timelines - one where JD is trying to balance his responsibility towards his mother and also trying to make it to his interviews on time, and the second, where he is going through some seminal events in his high school years, many of which are responsible for straining that first relationship. While neither are unbelievable, they seem disjointed and escapist, like as if one moment of epiphany is enough to inspire JD to choose himself, his well being, and his career over the many many many instances where he was forced to just deal with what was going on. 
 
The characters’ politics is kept neatly under wraps, and this is especially important considering this is one of the key takeaways from the book. The fact that Mamaw is a Christian Conservative who drops F-bombs all the time, and the fact that JD openly shunned the church claiming that they never provided the family with support. We hear he served in Iraq as a Marine but none of these concepts are explored even briefly. It’s mostly a superficial tale of systemic abuse, and in spite of JD Vance’s triumph (he landed a book deal with HarperCollins and has a film on his life), that level of mediocre melodrama does a huge disservice to what the story and the characters had to offer. 

Performances

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. 

Highlights

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.

Drawbacks

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. 


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