2018, R, 115 mins
Amy Adams as Bev Vance / Glenn Close as Mamaw / Gabriel Basso as J.D. Vance / Haley Bennett as Lindsay / Freida Pinto as Usha / Bo Hopkins as Papaw / Owen Asztalos as Young J.D. VanceDirected by Ron Howard / Written by Vanessa Taylor, based on the memoir by J.D. Vance
HILLBILLY ELEGY - streaming now on Netflix - is attempting, I think, to be
an inspirational fact based coming of age drama about a young man growing
up in abject poverty and strife that tries as best as he can to elevate
himself above it without forgetting his roots.
Based on the memoir by J.D Vance that chronicled his troubled
upbringing in the Deep South and his attempts to empower and better
himself, the film contains so many superficially good performances by
multiple Hollywood A-listers (some perhaps too immersed in their roles for
their own good...more on that in a bit) that it's profoundly disappointing
how they're all done in by shallow minded melodrama and some tone deaf
scripting that's rarely insightful about its very subject matter.
As a piece of shamefully obvious and aggressive Oscar bait,
HILLBILLY ELEGY is pretty up there as far as offenders go.
No one's saying
that Vance's memoir itself has bad intentions, nor are the intentions of
Howard and company impure, but HILLBILLY ELEGY uses such tired
storytelling troupes in presenting Vance's life story that it feels like
it was written on pure autopilot. Jumping loosely - and sometimes haphazardly and awkwardly so
- between the late 1990s and early 2010s, the script by Vanessa Taylor
chronicles Vance's tale of his childhood with a multi-generational
dysfunctional family, with each member having their own form of grief,
pain, and battles with addictions. We
witness the progress of Vance making the transition between being a
precocious, but trouble plagued youth all the way through to him
acclimating to college life and a hopeful career afterwards.
Unfortunately, Vance senses the looming shadow of his family and
lower southern class culture cast heavily over him, so much so that he
feels constantly constrained from emancipating himself from it fully.
Outside of following stale narrative conventions and troupes,
HILLBILLY ELEGY constantly comes off like it has no singular voice or
anything substantial to say about Vance, his family, his culture, and so
on...outside of poverty is bad and leads to shared misery.
early on to young J.D. in the backwoods of Kentucky and learn very quickly
about how the harsh economic realities of his time and place had vast
negative impacts on his clan, which succumbed to everything from drug and
alcohol addiction, domestic violence, and a near obsessive drive by
everyone in the family to protect this damaging way of life.
The small mountainous Northern Kentucky town that J.D. calls home
is shown by Howard in multiple tracking shots that make it come off like
one long junkyard assembly line masquerading as neighborhoods.
The narrative bounces back and forth between 1998 and 2010, and in
the latter present day sequences we see young adult J.D. (Gabriel Basso)
during his up and down struggles to make himself known and out there at
his Yale Law School, where he lives with his loving and supportive
girlfriend, Usha (Frieda Pinto, in the throwaway loving and supportive girlfriend
role). J.D. is clamoring for
a very prestigious scholarship that would take his education and career
hopes to the next level, but the problems of his family back home always
seems to be a thorn in his side that pulls him into their unhealthy
J.D. receives a
call one day from his semi-estranged sister in Lindsay (Haley Bennett)
that their mother in Bev (Amy Adams) has returned back to her substance
abuse ways, and with no money, no health insurance, and no hospital
willing to admit her, J.D. realizes that he must make the 10-hour
pilgrimage back home to ensure his mother's safety and provide her a place
to stay to recover. The
timing of this all sucks, seeing as J.D. was trying to charm his way
through an important Ivy league dinner with multiple law firm higher ups,
but his mother's continued battles with depression, addiction, and even
suicide forces him to abandon his higher education endeavors.
Sprinkled in are various flashbacks to J.D.'s youth, which tries to
sort out how his mother had such a fall from grace, not to mention that it
also delves into her own upbringing with her bitter mother in Mamaw (a
nearly unrecognizable Glenn Close), who seems to hold onto her
"hillbilly values and roots" (no matter how detrimental) like a
stubborn badge of honor. We
learn through further flashbacks that Mamaw eventually became J.D.
guardian when he became clear that his mom's bipolar personality and
extremely self-destructive behavior was doing no one any favors.
J.D. soon learned, though, that living with his grandmother imposed
a whole other set of growing pain challenges.
multiple times throughout HILLBILLY ELEGY were it descends into
off-putting poverty porn territory, highlighting J.D. and his family
desperate to make ends meet, pay bills, and cleanse themselves from all
out economic and emotional deprivation, mostly with failed results.
I would make the claim that we obviously need more films about
working class struggles and how so many barriers are placed before these
people that are trying to actively improve their livelihoods, but Howard
and company don't seem to have their collective fingers on the pulses of
who these people are and what they're trying to say, in the process, about
their conditions. It's
something for a film to tackle the tricky subject matter of how societal
systems make people either rich or poor on top of every other element that
seems to prop up institutions of poverty in a never-ending cycle of need,
but HILLBILLY ELEGY doesn't seem too inclined to do so.
Instead, it opts for broad, soap opera theatrics that are
substituted in for sweeping social commentary.
And that ultimately made the film dramatically negligible and
buried my emotional buy-in as a result.
simplistic, cookie-cutter manner that the screenplay treats these white
trash characters that's unintentionally detrimental to the film's creative
end games. One instance is
the underlining theme here of how families just stick together no matter
what devastating hardship befalls them.
That's honorable enough, and there's powerful storytelling to be
had with exploring this notion, but there's a vastly darker underbelly to
that, in particular with J.D.'s family where there are instances when some
members legitimately need interventions (even via the law) that they all
collectively sidestep because, well, family is everything, even if it
means avoiding incarceration. The
frustratingly myopic handling of this in HILLBILLY ELEGY makes it all the
more insufferable to sit through when it's asking us to empathize with and
like these misfits. Many of
these characters do morally bankrupt things that do irreparable harm to
themselves and others, but, yup, this family nurtures and supports
This...this is supposed to be inspirational?
Take the creative
handling of some of the personas here, like Bev, for instance.
She's a remarkably compelling character that just so happens to be
ruined by short-sighted writing. We
learn in snippets here and there that she, like her son after her, was
once an academic maestro that wanted a firm of escape from her roots, but
felt imprisoned by her family and multiple poor life choices as a result
of existing within financial hardship.
Her own mother's relationship with her father was marred by hellish
abuse, which she witnessed firsthand as a child.
Bev later became a single mother trying to provide for her family,
and later gave way to drugs to numb her pain, which cost her a job at the
local hospital. This is a
character typified by traumatizing turmoil in her life that negatively
spilt over into J.D.'s, but Bev is developed with just minimal layers, at
best. For the most part,
she's outwardly portrayed as a hot headed and angst ridden women hell bent
of self-destruction...and not much else.
She's more of a caricature of southern poverty more than she is a
fully realized flesh and blood human being.
performance here might be one of the paradoxical issues at play.
She's crazily immersed into this role and, initially at least, she
gives a real fiery take on this bitter and broken down woman, full of
histrionic outbursts that are the stuff of Best Actress Academy Award
nomination highlight reels. It's
really showy, and I compliment Adams steadfast commitment here, but since
there's so little depth with Bev on the written page that it's a case of
an actress giving it her all with under developed material. I
felt kind of the same about Close's even showier take on Bev's tough
talking and no nonsense mother that too has been through the absolute
ringer in life. A lot of this
character comes through with deglamorized costuming, makeup, and props,
but Close makes efforts to help elevate this blunt force trauma woman
above being some sort of petty piece of southern parody.
Close suggests much buried beneath the surface of this character
with long silences and disapproving stares than she does with expletive
laced put downs and one liners. She
definitely steals the film away from everyone else, for better or worse.
Maybe I found
myself gravitating towards the more grounded and soft spoken honesty of
the performances by the two actors playing J.D. at various stages of his
life (young Owen Asztalos is quite good as pre-teen J.D. and bares an
uncanny resemblance to Basso, who's equally good as the same character in
his older college years). Both
of these actors are a nice foil to the over the top eccentricities of
their co-star's work. But,
gee whiz, the writing does them no favors either, most glaring of which
when it contains some details that are awfully difficult to take credibly
(some of the early scenes at the aforementioned law school supper - laying
on the battle of wills between the upper class snobs in attendance and
J.D.'s more backwater form of table etiquette - seem about as subtle as
kick to the groin). Maybe
that's the ultimate sin with HILLBILLY ELEGY: Everything is lathered on
here so syrupy thick, and I witnessed so many scenes of gloom and doom
with this family that I finished my screening of it feeling more exhausted
Howard's film wants to be inviting and lure audiences in, but it has the negative side effect of pushing us away at a distance. And, yes, it has the facade of an awards season contender, but contains none of the intelligence, soul, or depth of one. Howard has taken great pains himself to defend his film from critics, who he thinks are targeting the political demographics of impoverished white Americans (that most likely were MAGA hat wearing supporters) instead of looking at the substance of these characters and their story. What he regrettably doesn't understand is that HILLBILLY ELEGY simply lacks the character development and thematic refinement that he claims it has.