J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis was released in the politically intense year of 2016 (though not nearly as much it would seem as 2020 has been). Admittedly, I knew nothing about that until about half way through the film (which I will take all the blame; I suppose I need to get out more.)
From what I have heard, the book talks more about the tales of a young man who grew up in Middleton, Ohio, under the values of his family’s past when they lived in the Appalachia Mountains of Kentucky. From what I have heard, the book also manages to deal with the political climate of the country at large, which may explain some of why the book was a bestseller. I can say for certain that the film adaptation, Hillbilly Elegy, has nothing in it about the political outlook of any kind. In fact, there was more than political commentary that was lost in translation from page to screen.
For a movie with cast members such as Amy Adams and Glenn Close, not to mention directed by the great Ron Howard, Hillbilly Elegy just overall was too underwhelming. The film starts with the introduction of the young J.D. (Owen Asztalos) in 1997, as his life consists of living with his unstable mom, Bev (Adams). He does tend to try and find solace with his grandparents, especially Mamaw (Close).
Fast forward to 2011, where we see a grown up J.D. (Gabriel Basso), who has managed to study his way up to be a Yale Law Student. While on the cusp of an interview, he receives a call from his sister Lindsey (Haley Bennett). There mom has overdosed, and Lindsey needs her brothers help as she is busy with her own life as well (she is married with three kids). Even with an interview in his very near future, J.D. still feels drawn to helping his family ten hours away, despite the flashbacks to some seriously messed up instances of parenting.
The next sentence I am typing is one I never thought I would type, and it actually pains me to do so. I think Amy Adams was not right for the part. I have always adored Amy Adams, who is truly one of the most talented actors of her (or any) generation, yet some how her performance here did not do it for me. There are too many moments where she seems to be trying too hard to stay afloat.
Glenn Close, on the other hand, did work for me. While it is not a knock out performance, it is still one that was impressive. When her Mamaw comes in and is ready to lay down the law, you think to yourself “this is going to be good!”.
The other actors are hit or miss. The young Asztalos, in one of his first big roles, does a fine job of keeping up with the intensity of Close and Adams, while Basso as the adult Vance did not need to do as much unnecessary voice over narration. We also get Freida Pinto as Vance’s girlfriend Usha, who is very supportive of J.D.’s career choices but not to the point of manipulation. While Pinto is indeed talented, she is playing a role that is, I feel, too old for her (in fairness, she looks exactly the same as she did twelve years ago in Slumdog Millionaire).
The clear message of the movie is a sense of hereditarianism. We see certain moments where J.D. (the adult) may resort to his roots to defend his “people”. One example is, as he is sitting at a fancy dinner table (with no knowledge of how to use the forks), he firmly tells another table guest how offensive it is to use the term “redneck”, making it seem like it is a racial slur. There is the other scene when he threatens to hurt someone who insults his mother. Despite the film’s underwhelming nature, there is a clear reminder, apt for the ideological polarization of 2020, that our upbringing has trememndous influence on our worldview as adults.
Parents, the film is rated R, but tends to straddle the line between R and PG-13. There is a good amount of swearing (including F bombs) as well as derogatory terms. There is also a fair amount of violence (though nothing too graphic) and traumatic material, so I would say High School and up. Overall, it’s the type of language and thematic elements we’ve come to expect from social issue commentaries-necessary or not.
Hillbilly Elegy gave me the same sense of disappointment as last year’s The Goldfinch (though that film was definitely worse). Both films land in the subcategory of film which is referred to as “Oscar Bait.” Simply put, it is a movie that, when you see the film or trailer (or sometimes even the poster), you think “Well, that will be nominated for an Oscar!” The elements of these movies may vary (war movies, period pieces, autobiographical, etc). Another is having actors who have yet to win a single Oscar after many nominations (something that both Amy Adams and Glenn Close surely have going for them.)
In the case of Hillbilly Elegy, it seemed like they worried so much on how to put the bait on the hook and not enough time making the bait appealing enough.