Movie Review – Hillbilly Elegy (2020)

Hillbilly Elegy, 2020.

Directed by Ron Howard.
Starring Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Gabriel Basso, Haley Bennett, Freida Pinto, Bo Hopkins, Owen Asztalos, Ethan Levy, Jesse C. Boyd, Stephen Kunken, Dylan Gage, David Atkinson, Keong Sim, Chase Anderson, David Jensen, Jason Davis, and Sarah Hudson.

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SYNOPSIS:

A Yale law student drawn back to his hometown grapples with family history, Appalachian values, and the American dream.

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Enjoyment of Hillbilly Elegy varies depending on what one makes of a character on the cusp of putting his Yale education to good use, dropping important interviews to drive from Connecticut to Ohio to deal with his mother that has overdosed on heroin. Specifically, how much of this movie you can take before throwing something at the wall in frustration is reliant on what you make of the message that family is the only thing worth a damn, which is a line that’s uttered in the movie eliciting a groan when coming out the other end of a circus show US election that has reaffirmed my choices in cutting ties with certain people.

Needless to say, I grew tired of what director Ron Howard (still one of the greats, but he’s having far more misses than hits lately seemingly going from genre to genre or documentary desperately trying to find his groove again) and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (a writer on both The Shape of Water and Game of Thrones) were selling, but since this is also based on a true story and J.D. Vance’s actual book of the same name recounting his multi-generational life experiences, all I really got is that he is certainly a more patient and compassionate man than me.

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Portrayed by Owen Asztalos as an early teen and Gabriel Basso as an aspiring lawyer, J.D. comes from a dysfunctional family in the truest sense of the dynamic, so much that he has trouble opening up to his Indian girlfriend Usha (Freida Pinto) about his late 90s (the period piece details are impressive whether it’s the rural hometown itself, fantasy and sports playing cards, or cans of Coke) hillbilly roots. There’s a deeper impression that while he has a soft spot for the good aspects of these family members, he’s actually ashamed of his impoverished upbringing. And there is something to relate to, with everyone most likely having a few rotten apples among their family tree that they would prefer not to introduce to significant others are close friends or what have you.

As a real person and character, J.D.’s dilemma is felt, but as the flashbacks keep coming of his mom Bev (Amy Adams in a superficial performance that’s all transformative and dialed-up to 11 with rarely a moment to see this much talked about amazing side of her) starting off of scenes from a place of fun and crude mother quickly devolving into some form of child abuse or drug use, the only reaction is wanting him to drive back and get ready to take on some more job interviews. The problem is that he is also a hillbilly now part of a social class that may as well be a foreign world to him, with Usha having to guide him on which utensil is for what at a fancy dinner. He’s having self-doubts and not even sure he is cut out for what he is tackling.

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Throughout all of this craziness (one thing Hillbilly Elegy certainly does right is make us understand why J.D. is so terrified to bring his girlfriend into the loop, even if she clearly is willing to support him on anything) are droplets of exposition and little character details showing that the tragically chaotic state of this family is hereditary. Bev had her first child at a young age, J.D.’s sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett), who was never really around much after marrying young and starting her own family, somewhat blaming herself for the current situation.  The family has gone through losses of life that were foundational pillars in keeping Bev as stable as can be. Self-destructive vices seem to have run in the family until this current generation.

The star of the show is Glenn Close as Mamaw (grandma Bonnie) who, much like Amy Adams here, has also gone through some Hollywood transformative magic and is also at times coming off as a cartoon character more than a real person, but some of this is not the fault of the actors. Hillbilly Elegy is compressed into under two hours for a story that feels like it could be an entire miniseries with the amount of material there is to really delve into. By cramming the traumatic elements into somewhere between 7-10 flashbacks, it has the unfortunate effect that all the filmmakers are actually doing is exploring the trauma and not the hearts of these people. Consider it rambunctious hillbilly trauma porn more than an elegy. It’s I, Tonya without the crux of examining how these people got to be so mad or the condescending role the rest of America plays in it.

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Still, Mamaw comes down close to saving Hillbilly Elegy in a triumphant third act where she doesn’t use Terminators as reference points for wisdom and, in a greater sense, stops letting her performance be defined by side-by-side comparisons to a real person. Bev is a perpetual screwup, and Mamaw transitions into the tough loving grandma from the overlap of heaven and hell on a mission to save J.D. from the delinquent road he is going down as a result of bad parenting and even worse influential friends. There’s a scene where Glenn Close gives them a verbal beatdown which is, aside from being one of the only times the intended humor works, is one of many locked in moments from the legendary performer where the material is actually coming together in a meaningful way.

For Hillbilly Elegy, it’s a shame that the film doesn’t lock in until the final 30 minutes. If this movie is going to work, it needs to primarily focus on either Beverly or Mamaw with the elegiac framing device of J.D. embracing his roots; having it both ways does a disservice to both actors and the complicated real lives behind these characters.

Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★

Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at [email protected]