Directed by Ron Howard (“A Beautiful Mind”), “Hillbilly Elegy” is an adaptation of J.D. Vance’s memoir of the same name. It tells the story of a young Vance (Gabriel Basso, “Super 8”) returning home from Yale Law School to take care of his mother (Amy Adams, “Enchanted”), who struggles with drug addiction. The film relies heavily on flashbacks that reveal Vance’s close relationship with his grandmother (Glenn Close, “Fatal Attraction”) and the difficult childhood he faced. It departs from its source material in questionable ways and seems to lean too much on the performances of its lead actresses, who share a total of 13 Oscar nominations and zero wins. In addition to this, the use of flashbacks is both confusing and messy and results in a film that fails to deliver any message of substance.
Vance’s memoir tried to explain why many people living in Appalachia viewed the world from a conservative lens (and eventually was used as an explanation for why the same people voted for Trump in 2016), something that this adaptation completely ignores. By ignoring all of the politics involved in the memoir, it feels as though the filmmakers are asking the audience to ignore or excuse the characters’ racism, which is deeply wrong and unfair. Refusing to address politics contributes to how meaningless “Hillbilly Elegy” ultimately feels. Vance’s political analysis is a key point in his memoir, and it adds relevance and some complexity to his story. Without that complexity, the film instead flounders between dramatic flashbacks without any real purpose. These flashbacks become old fast because they hit the same emotional beat every time. The struggles that these characters face, such as drug addiction and poverty, are very real and very relevant, but they deserve to be told in a story that has complexity as well as characters to actually hold onto. “Hillbilly Elegy” has neither and instead relies on stereotypes to push its characters along.
The way the film is structured doesn’t benefit the story at all. It starts with a flashback and then quickly cuts to the present day, when Vance is a law student. This makes it so that there is never a chance to get to know Vance’s mom, Bev, or grandmother, Mamaw, except through the stereotypes that they represent. One scene in particular shows Vance’s mom purposefully driving their car dangerously fast, nearly crashing. She then screams at him and repeatedly hits him. He manages to escape the car, run to a nearby house and call the police. This entire scene feels like it comes out of nowhere, as it follows a scene where an older Vance is at a Yale dinner. More importantly, because there hasn’t been a chance for Bev’s character to develop, this scene and the countless ones just like it all add up to make her feel one-dimensional. Even though there is the occasional sweet moment between Vance and his mother, the majority of her scenes are solely about her addiction and instability. Because she doesn’t get any dimension, her character feels like a trope.
Whatever message “Hillbilly Elegy” wants to deliver simply does not land. The whole movie seems to be an attempt to get either Adams or Close an Oscar, which in turn makes the tale feel contrived and meaningless. The story feels like a series of dramatic moments from someone’s life that should offer perspective or commentary on Appalachia, but instead every moment falls flat. There are too many times when a cheesy voiceover completely ruins a moment or the film’s score tells the audience how to feel instead of letting the moment end naturally. After the first half hour of this formula, the movie becomes slow and feels ridiculous.
What was the point of this movie? What was its intended message? To show that if you work hard enough, you can make it to Yale Law School? To show that family is important? While some might have thought that this could’ve meant an Oscar win for Adams or Close, it seems likely that “Hillbilly Elegy” will not be included in the upcoming awards race, which is certainly for the best.
Daily Arts Writer Judith Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.