DIRECTED BY: Ron Howard
STARRING: Gabriel Basso, Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Owen Asztalos, Haley Bennett, Freida Pinto and Bo Hopkins
Based on the bestselling memoir by J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy is a modern exploration of the American Dream and three generations of an Appalachian family as told by its youngest member, a Yale Law student forced to return to his hometown.
Hillbilly Elegy is a film adaptation of J.D Vance’s memoir, adapted by Vanessa Taylor and directed by Ron Howard. The film focuses on J.D Vance, a former Marine from southern Ohio and current Yale Law student, who is on the verge of landing his dream job, when a family crisis forces him to return to the home he’s tried to forget. J.D must navigate the complex dynamics of his Appalachian family, including his volatile relationship with his mother Bev, who’s struggling with addiction. Fuelled by memories of his grandmother Mamaw, the resilient and whip-smart woman who raised him, J.D comes to embrace his family’s indelible imprint on his own personal journey.
The film has an interesting take on looking how history, more often than not, repeats itself and sometimes it can be passed on from generation to generation, not only in a spiritual sense, but also how scars of hurt pain can carry on in cycles and sometimes it’s just as difficult to break them. We learn throughout the course of the film and Mamaw and Papaw’s relationship that their turmoils together have gone on to scar that of their daughter Bev, who struggles with addiction and that causes a rift in her relationship with her son J.D. As we see from the beginning, J.D looks set to escape and break that cycle until he gets a call of his mother overdosing, and faces the conundrum of whether to stick around and help out and risk this supposed last chance opportunity to make something of himself. The cinematography from Maryse Alberti is good here, and is about as much of the technical aspect that I enjoyed from the film. In terms of performances, Glenn Close gives a solid performance as the hard-edged Mamaw, though she has some softer moments that will definitely place her into awards consideration when the time comes. Amy Adams does well with what she has to work with as Bev, a character who’s at times selfish, self-centred, woe-is-me and lashing at her kids, she’s a banshee figure that goes from not to eleven at the drop of the wrong word and I think that’s why her performance is so divisive. Haley Bennett gives a good performance as well as J.D’s older sister Lindsay, whose been left behind by J.D to help deal with their mother whilst she’s trying to raise her own family. The performances from Gabriel Basso and Owen Asztalos as J.D are also decent as well, with Basso showcasing the characters conflict of looking to do right by his mother but also worry about his future and Asztalos having to deal with the volatile nature of growing up with two different voices that more often than not clashed.
There are a few issues that I had with the film, the first of which being the adapted screenplay by Vanessa Taylor. I’m not familiar with the subject matter of J.D Vance nor his memoir, but there’s certain sequences here that feel more manipulative than earnest in their execution. There’s even some scenes which may come across as more humorous than intended, particularly a flashback scene involving J.D and Lindsay getting a young pup in the household. The story also doesn’t have that anchor to make us have a personal connection to J.D’s journey here as everything is delivered on a surface-level base, we know he served in the marines because he tells us so and we get one brief flashback glimpse of him in uniform, he tells us of the hillbilly world and its traditions through narration, but it’s more of from what his grandparents and great-grandparents point-of-view, telling him about how they grew up in Jackson, Kentucky, whilst he, his sister and mother live in Middletown, Ohio. J.D Vance feels just as disconnected from the hillbilly world as the film tries to portray it. Also some of the dialogue just doesn’t really work as I’m sure they intended, Mamaw’s Terminator monologue to a young J.D being one of them. While the films message is about family, quite a lot of it is everyone is at each others throats, but there’s a code to follow and you have to honour it. Another issue was the editing of the film and its narrative structure, which is all over the place as it jumps back and forth between the present and flashback sequences, with some flashbacks just sprung onto the audience suddenly with no buildup to make them feel a certain way and particularly how they bring that structure together in the films climax. For me personally, I believe it would’ve benefitted from being more linear.
As a whole Hillbilly Elegy didn’t work for me. The screenplay feels too melodramatic and the emotional scenes feel manipulative, but it’s the editing and overall narrative structure that makes the film feel like a slog to get through. Performances across the board are fine, but it’s Glenn Close who will definitely garner awards buzz for her performance.