Film Review – Hillbilly Elegy
Something went terribly wrong with Hillbilly Elegy (2020). There is too much talent in front and behind the camera to make something this overly dramatic, sappy, and emotionally empty. It plays like a satire of a movie aiming for award consideration instead of seeking an honest, authentic story. Everything about it is pumped up to the max – when characters are not yelling at each other they’re spitting out cliched dialogue about their hopes, dreams, fears, and regrets. I understand that this is based on a true story, but something got lost in the adaptation.
Ron Howard is a long-time director who has made good, even great films. Apollo 13 (1995), A Beautiful Mind (2001), Cinderella Man (2005), and Rush (2013) are just a few examples of what he can do when given the right material. It comes as a shock that his latest effort feels so unlike his previous work – as though it were made by a completely different person. It feels bland; lacking in substance. There are characters and a story here, but no soul. Adapting J.D. Vance’s memoir of the same name (with screenwriter Vanessa Taylor), Hillbilly Elegy focuses on a small Ohioan family. Instilled with Appalachian values, the family is closely connected but rife with alcoholism and domestic violence.
Our narrator is J.D. himself. When we first meet him, J.D. is a law student attending Yale (Gabriel Basso). He is smart, hardworking, has a supportive girlfriend (Freida Pinto), and is in the middle of interviews for a job opening. Things seem to be going his way, but we soon learn that J.D.’s past has always stuck with him. He has conflicting feelings about his “hillbilly” upbringing, so much so that he worked to lose his family’s distinctive accent. His past comes calling when he learns that his mother, Bev (Amy Adams) has had a health scare and now needs his help.
We meander through J.D.’s life in the present and past. We meet his younger self (Owen Asztalos) and follow him through the emotional turmoil of his family. Bev has been the cause of much of his anguish. From her violent outbursts, substance abuse, rotating train of lovers, and emotional instability, Bev is like a powder keg of unpredictability. She will be a kind and loving mother one moment and then a split second later will explode, causing a scene with her verbal (and physical) cruelty. It’s a back and forth – J.D. cares about his mother but despises her tirades. This puts him in an uncomfortable situation when his sister (Haley Bennett) calls on him to come home and make sure Bev is looked after. Not only does he have to face the woman who has given him so much strife, he also has to face the community he worked so hard to leave behind.
The narrative plays out like a test to see how much despair we’re willing to take. We witness scene after scene of Bev’s neglect and manipulation of her children. We get a small explanation of how she got to be who she is, but we don’t get a well-rounded view of her personality. She is high octane all the time, rarely calming down for a respite. In fact, the only beacon of warmth J.D. experiences is from his grandmother, Mamaw (Glenn Close), but she doesn’t figure in as a counterpoint to Bev but more of a bystander. When Bev orders J.D. to do something he knows is wrong, Mamaw shows her true colors and what he ends up with is disappointment.
I refuse to believe that Amy Adams can give a bad performance. She is an outstanding actor who has given us great work in a vast array of genres for years. And yet as Bev she is hard to watch. Bev is portrayed at only one level, where she is constantly amped up. Adams should be given credit for sustaining her energy for so long, it looks exhausting. The writing and direction did not support her enough to pull out a believable character. I don’t know if the real Bev was like this, but on screen she looks like a caricature. When she runs out in the middle of the street screaming at the top of her lungs, I started to wonder if this was some sort of performance art. I’m willing to accept that Amy Adams is so good that she decided to give a bad performance just to see if she can do it.
What exactly is Hillbilly Elegy trying to say? Is it meant to give humanity to a slice of society often looked down upon by others? Is it supposed to examine the economical and personal hardships of being a member of the lower class? Is it the study of a man embracing his roots? Is it a commentary on trauma and how it can filter down through generations? The fact that I’m asking all of these questions goes to show that the film doesn’t really have much to say about any of them.