Ron Howards Hillbilly Elegy is a modern day take on the American dream through the eyes of three generations of the Vance family in the small town of Middleton, Ohio.
Based on the memoirs of J.D. Vance called Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. The book reached the top of the New York Times bestseller list but not without its controversies. Mainly about its rhetoric on poverty and the white working class in Appalachia. It is these controversies never really getting fleshed out that doom the film from reaching its full potential.
Starring an impressive cast with Glenn Close as the chain smoking Mawmaw, Gabriel Brasso as J.D., Amy Adams as his mother Bev, and Haley Bennett as his sister Lindsay. The story is at its best when we focus on young J.D., played most convincingly by Owen Asztalos.
The story moves as a series of prolonged flashbacks through the eyes of J.D., who is studying law at Yale and has to come home due to a family emergency. During an important dinner, one where he is setting up interviews for law clerking jobs to help fund his next semester, J.D. gets a phone call that his mother is in the hospital. Unfortunately for JD, it is not surprising. His mother is a heroin addict who has been using and relapsing his whole life. He is plunged into this emotional trauma while he is trying to secure a callback from perspective employers. This, among other moments may hit harder in the hands of a more capable actor.
He drives back home to Ohio to try and sort things out at the hospital and get his mother Bev (Amy Adams) into a rehab facility. Through the flashbacks to 14 years prior, we are clued into J.D.’s past and his hesitancy to come back home. There are glimpses of a cohesive story, one that might be filled with nuance and subtly, but everything ultimately gets boiled down to the broad strokes. The cliché-ridden story can’t seem to get past its determination to over simplify everything. When young J.D. is rebelling and smoking pot with his bad friends, he has long hair and wears Metallica t-shirts, you know, because he’s bad. The platitudes don’t stop there, you know every character’s motivations and relevance to the story based on whatever stereotype has been assigned to them.
There will be buzz surrounding the film because of Close and Adam’s performances. They are both very good and certainly stand out, but the characters are so one-note and trite it is hard to shower them with too much praise. Basso as the lead is just not convincing. The very wide array of emotions needed to play this character are just lost on him, what we end up getting is a performance that is sullen, agitated, and whiney.
Written by Oscar nominee Vanessa Taylor who was nominated for The Shape of Water and directed by Oscar winner Ron Howard, everything about this screams Oscar bait. Regrettably Howard has created something that is more “paint by numbers” without any convincing heart being displayed. There are a lot of ingredients that could be used to make the perfect blend of awards worthy drama and childhood success story, but the filmmakers failed attempts at getting past the surface this blue-collar family hamstring any opportunity for success.
2 out of 5