Scant context, lessons overshadow performances in Howard’s ‘Hillbilly Elegy’

BY NEIL MORRIS, CN+R Film Critic
Posted 12/3/20

J.D. Vance’s 2016 memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” is a sometimes confounding, always provocative overview of the author’s experiences as a second-generation Appalachia descendant raised as a …

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Scant context, lessons overshadow performances in Howard’s ‘Hillbilly Elegy’

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J.D. Vance’s 2016 memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” is a sometimes confounding, always provocative overview of the author’s experiences as a second-generation Appalachia descendant raised as a first-generation Ohio middle class transplant.

Vance’s assessment of the virtues and drawbacks of so-called “hillbilly culture” and its (de)evolution into the 1990s drew both praise and criticism from each end of the political spectrum. Vance himself has been branded an insightful soothsayer by some and a partisan carpetbagger by others.

Whether you regard Vance’s book as perceptive or controversial, at least it is about something. The same cannot be said for director Ron Howard’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” a film adaptation that supplants any cultural and political commentary with a standard-issue family melodrama and redemption story.

Split between Vance’s 1990s Middletown Ohio childhood and his present-day life as a Yale law student, Vance (Gabriel Basso) is summoned back home when his mother Bev (Amy Adams) suffers her latest overdose in a decades-long battle with drug addiction. Vance temporarily leaves behind his girlfriend (Freida Pinto) and an impending interview for a prestigious summer internship as he reluctantly revisits a world he gladly left behind, replete with family abuse and social rot. As Vance drives into Middletown, the glimpses of boarded-up businesses, dilapidated houses and wayward youth wandering the streets portends a low-to-middle class rural America disassembled by a myriad of generational causes.

Howard eschews any in-depth analysis of how the search for success once sought by Vance’s grandparents’ when they moved out of the hills of Kentucky to the blue-collar job market of Ohio gradually devolved into a downward spiral of social and family decay. Instead, we oscillate between Vance’s present-day fretting over having to risk his personal aims for the sake of his seemingly hopeless mom, and the semi-origins of Vance’s angst, which involve an angry, unlikeable Bev and an angry, unlikeable teenage Vance (Owen Asztalos). The only redeemable characters are Vance’s sister Lindsay (played as an adult by Haley Bennett), who never moved out of Middletown but seems more psychological well-adjusted than her Ivy League brother, and Vance’s “Mamaw” (Glenn Close), a ramrod matriarch whose marriage was riddled with abuse and whose motherhood feels like a failure. Played by Close with clinched-jawed, steely-eyed intensity, Mamaw eventually seizes the reins of rearing Vance, sparing her grandson from the pitfalls of Middletown and paving his path towards future success.

Exactly how Vance progressed from finally scoring As on his algebra quizzes to attending Yale Law School is never elucidated. As for present-day Vance, the entirety of his journey comprises how to extricate himself from mom and Middletown soon enough to make his job interview, and being reminded in the meantime of why he left in the first place. Vance’s ultimate destination is laudable, but there is scant context and even fewer available lessons to learn.

The strength of “Hillbilly Elegy” is the performances by the lead actors. You can practically see the flop sweat as Close’s harridan and Adam’s hysterics wring every drop of drama out of each scene. It is a testament to their talent that they salvage the film from being irredeemable to watchable for extended spans. But “Hillbilly Elegy” feels extraneous, less a poetic lament and more just lamentable.

Hillbilly Elegy

Grade: C

Director: Ron Howard

Starring: Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Gabriel Basso, Owen Asztalos, Haley Bennett and Freida Pinto

MPAA Rating: R

Running Time: 1 hr. 56 min.

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