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Film Review: In “Hillbilly Elegy,” Everyone Suffers

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | November 23rd, 2020

Film poster: “Hillbilly Elegy”

Hillbilly Elegy (Ron Howard, 2020) 1½ out of 4 stars.

Based on J.D. Vance’s eponymous 2016 memoir (which I have not read), Ron Howard’s latest movie, Hillbilly Elegy, stars Gabriel Basso (The Whole Truth) as the author, himself, navigating the separate challenges of Yale Law School and his Appalachian roots. He comes from hillbillies, you see, as the title indicates, except not entirely, since he grew up in Middletown, OH, over the state line his Kentucky parents crossed to make a better life for themselves. A confused jumble of superficial platitudes about the differences between the haves and have nots, written by someone who now, as a venture capitalist, has quite a lot, the film is not without its touching moments, though they are squandered amidst the morass of generalizing sentiment. Howard (Rebuilding Paradise), a capable director with a maudlin streak, further underlines every point with overbearing music. Like the poor drug addicts who take up some of the cinematic space here, he just can’t seem to help himself. 

We start in 1997, when J.D. is but a tween boy, played by a very fine Owen Asztalos. His already studious tendencies, coupled with his status as an outsider from Ohio, get him beat up during a summer interlude in Kentucky. Fortunately, his kin step in, teaching him that family is everything. It’s too bad he (and/or the screenwriter, Vanessa Taylor, Hope Springs) will later paint them in such broad strokes, a fine repayment for sticking up for him. From there, we proceed to cut back and forth between those not-so-halcyon days and 2011, as J.D. has escaped his apparent destiny and is on the verge of joining the global elite. With a loving girlfriend, Usha (Freida Pinto, Love Wedding Repeat) and a series of internship interviews just ahead, his future seems made, though he still feels like an outsider. But then a call from his sister, Lindsay (Haley Bennett, Thank You for Your Service) interrupts those plans, and off he must go, back to Ohio.

l-r: Haley Bennett, Glenn Close and Owen Asztalos in HILLBILLY ELEGY. Photo Cr. Lacey Terrell ©Netflix

It seems that mom, Bev (Amy Adams, Vice), is a drug addict, something we will see much more of in the copious flashbacks. Yet again, she has overdosed, and it’s up to J.D. to step in, since Lindsay has her hands full with her own children now. Matriarch Mamaw (Glenn Close, The Wife) is no longer of this world by this point (though we see plenty of her in the past), and without her somewhat steady hand (steadier than Bev’s, anyway) to help right the ship, the family is in real trouble. The dramatic spine of the story then becomes J.D.’s struggle to remain true to where he came from while also mustering the strength to leave.

It’s a powerful dilemma, though there is a bit too much of having one’s cake and snorting it, too, given the simultaneous reverent and patronizing profile of the place, coupled with the unflattering portraits of the elites back East; if everyone suffers from one-dimensionality, then who gets to be a real person? Fortunately, a few strong performances, especially from Adams, occasionally elevate the weak material, though Close labors under a ridiculous set of prosthetics that freeze her every expression in a barely mobile grimace. Is that the actress acting or the make-up? Bennet shines and Basso is good enough to carry his scenes (though I prefer Asztalos). I have no idea how fans of the book will react to this adaptation, but as someone coming in cold, I didn’t warm up nearly enough.

l-r: Haley Bennett, Gabriel Basso and Amy Adams in HILLBILLY ELEGY. Photo Cr. Lacey Terrell ©Netflix
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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