A film review by Craig J. Koban December 11, 2020


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. Vance

Directed by Ron Howard  /  Written by Vanessa Taylor, based on the memoir by J.D. Vance


Ron Howard's 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. 

We're introduced 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 vortex. 



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. 

There are 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. 

There's a 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 it...because...family.  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. 

Adams' 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 than uplifted.   

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.  

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