Directed by: Ron Howard
Premise: Based on the memoir by J.D. Vance. A Yale law student (Gabriel Basso) returns to his hometown in Kentucky after his mother (Amy Adams) has overdosed on heroin. He tries to get her into rehab while recounting his difficult childhood.
What Works: Hillbilly Elegy is a family drama that’s intended to be accessible to a mainstream audience and understood as that kind of commercial project the filmmakers mostly succeed at what they are trying to do. There’s plenty of weighty subject matter here including domestic violence and drug abuse and for better or worse all of that is presented in a way that’s accessible for a mainstream commercial audience. Hillbilly Elegy has a handful of good performances. Glenn Close is cast as the grandmother and Close disappears into the role. The makeup and costuming combine with Close’s demeanor, voice, and posture to create a vivid character. Also impressive are Owen Asztalos as the teenage J.D. Vance and Haley Bennett as his sister. The flashback narrative of the young Vance is much more compelling than the frame story and Asztalos’ performance possesses a lot of nuance. Bennett is also quite good. The film doesn’t give her much to do but she appears as a teenager in the flashbacks and as an adult in the present and Bennett gauges her performance appropriately.
What Doesn’t: Hillbilly Elegy is a Hollywood version of very un-Hollywood subject matter and it suffers from that disconnect. This film was directed by Ron Howard who is a long established studio filmmaker behind pictures such as Apollo 13 and Frost/Nixon. The glossy production values constantly draw attention to the artifice; this material would have been more effective if it were made in a rougher and earthier fashion like The Panic in Needle Park. This problem is evident in the casting of Amy Adams as J.D. Vance’s mother. Adams is a terrific actress and she’s doing her best here but Adams brings too much Hollywood noise to this production and unlike Glenn Close she never disappears into the role. The frame story of Hillbilly Elegy depicts the adult J.D. Vance torn between his Kentucky roots and his Ivy League future. Everything in this part of the film is very obvious and the adult Vance is not a compelling character. Vance is so disinteresting perhaps because the filmmakers did not understand the source material. Hillbilly Elegy is about a class of people ravaged by poverty and drug abuse. It’s a tragedy but the filmmakers force the material to conform to a happy Hollywood ending that comes across disingenuous and fake.
DVD extras: Currently available on Netflix.
Bottom Line: Hillbilly Elegy isn’t a bad movie but it is bland and unremarkable. It’s the kind of movie that will probably appeal to viewers who turned out for The Help and Green Book. But like those movies, Hillbilly Elegy comes across artificial and out of touch with the lives of the people it depicts. In an effort to be tasteful it does feel like anything at all.