REVIEW: Hillbilly Elegy (2020)

Hillbilly Elegy - Still Image - Lacey Terrell - Netflix
‘Hillbilly Elegy,’ Still Image — Photo by Lacey Terrell / Netflix.

Directed by Ron Howard — Screenplay by Vanessa Taylor.

Though it was once touted as a huge player at the upcoming Academy Awards, the overall critical reception of Ron Howard’s adaptation of J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy has been surprisingly negative. What was once looked upon as the film that might finally be the vehicle that would give Amy Adams and Glenn Close the Oscars that their careers most definitely deserve, now looks like a surprisingly unengaging piece of Oscar-bait, which is a term that refers to films that give off the impression that they were made only to be nominated for Oscars. However, while I do think one performance is good enough to earn praise at awards ceremonies, the film as a whole is not memorable or good enough to leave a lasting impression.

Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy tells the story of how J.D. Vance (played by both Gabriel Basso, as an adult, and Owen Asztalos, as a kid) worked to find a way out of his hometown to get a fancy education, but the film also, in large part, focuses on his relationship with his family. The film essentially puts J.D. at a crossroads. Before J.D. can attend an interview that may prove to be of paramount importance to his future, he has to return home to be reminded of his roots. As we follow J.D. Vance through his hometown, we also watch these flashbacks of his family’s past. We encounter a tough but loving grandmother, Bonnie (played by Glenn Close), who he refers to as ‘Mamaw,’ and his mother, Beverly (played by Amy Adams), whose life has been permanently damaged by drug addiction.

Oscar-hopeful films are sometimes met with hyperbolic reviews from critics. During awards season, it can feel like any new movie is either the best or worst thing since sliced bread. Hillbilly Elegy has already been met with plenty of very negative reviews, but, while I don’t think the film is particularly recommendable, the film didn’t really leave a lasting impression on me at all. Hillbilly Elegy is frankly just unengaging and unoriginal. I don’t think there is anything in Ron Howard’s film that you haven’t seen done better elsewhere. I think the film has a somewhat befuddling story structure and sometimes when it cuts from one scene to the next the time jumps can be a little bit jarring.

The performances are not as strong as I anticipated. Amy Adams, who has become one of my favorite actresses, gives an over-theatrical performance that I don’t think works as well as she and Ron Howard had intended it to. Gabriel Basso, who plays J.D. Vance as an adult, is given a difficult task as his character is fairly dull. It is a thankless task to play a character who seems to have been written to be so uncharismatic, so I don’t want to over-criticize Basso, but I will say that Owen Asztalos, who plays the younger J.D., is in much more interesting scenes and is able to get more out of their character.

There is one thing that I thought really worked well about this film and that is Glenn Close’s performance and her make-up. The make-up character design is apparently true to life, and it does help Glenn Close in her attempt to become unrecognizable in the role of ‘Mamaw.’ I frankly think that Glenn Close’s performance is the best thing about the film, and she has two pretty great scenes — one in a car and one scene with a report card (both scenes are shared with co-star Asztalos) — that I thought were excellent.

Hillbilly Elegy isn’t the complete misfire that I think some people have already described it as. But I also have to say that I don’t think this is the film that finally earns Close or Adams their Oscar statuettes. Unfortunately, Ron Howard’s latest film is just a bland and generic rust belt rags-to-riches melodrama that most people will probably have forgotten about before the next Oscar ceremony.

5.5 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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