Hillbilly Elegy is what happens when a director and writer chose the middle lane in a story that had to be braver by going for that fast lane. By staying in the middle, the audience is left with nothing. A film that is far too comfortable that it doesn’t have a point to make.
J.D. Vance (Gabriel Basso), a former Marine from southern Ohio and current Yale Law student are 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 (Amy Adams), who’s struggling with addiction. Fueled by memories of his grandmother Mamaw (Glenn Close), the resilient and whip-smart woman who raised him. J.D. comes to embrace his family’s indelible imprint on his journey.
It is so disappointing that for a book that had so much to say, (rightly or wrongly) that it’s adaptation could say so little in comparison. Failing to say anything of note on any of the important topics it should be discussing, especially in this moment. Instead resorting to being a standard boy from a troubled family does good.
This is an adaption and Ron Howard and writer Vanessa Taylor ran so far away from talking about the darker side of this story that you wonder what the point was in even making it. A film about generational abuse, addiction. People who feel they have been left behind and regional socioeconomics is there for the taking and it appears as if Howard was afraid to take that on. Playing it safe, by doing with what he knows works.
For Hillbilly Elegy, the most frustrating aspect is that in previous years, this would have been a serviceable film in previous years. A film that skirts the main topics and tip toes into the depths of some others without fully committing to them. As audiences we have all seen these types of films. Ones where complex characters are made one note to fit the agenda of the writer and director. Where lots and subplots are altered so much that the actual point of the film is lost.
The story is truncated and directed in such a way that it loses all of it’s sharpness. It’s drama and becomes that cheesy feel good film. In recent years there is a reason why films such as Hillbilly Elegy have been derided. This is not the time for a story that could take us down a difficult path and discussion to back out of it at the last second. In previous years, certainly the 90s and early 00s this would have been accepted. Now? Now audiences demand a reason for it to made. Crucially, Howard and Taylor can’t give us that answer. This iteration wasn’t needed, we needed something more substantial, more meaningful.
There are a lot of tears spilt in Hillbilly Elegy, the struggle is to imagine if any of the audience will be doing the same. We do not venture into the soulless feelgood Americana endeavour that Howard has wrongly been labelled for much of his career. But we do get awfully close to something akin to that.
The idea that everything works in cycles is touched on just enough. Be it from emotional and physical abuse to the worrying addiction to opioids. We see how vicious these cycles have gripped the Vance’s. We don’t grapple with these and other moments (we will get to that). As well as Howard and Taylor, think we do. It is thick brush strokes showing us it, instead of giving us the intricacies of the matter.
If we had more of that then Hillbilly Elegy would be a completely different film and one that we as an audience could gravitate towards freely to. In truth, it feels as if we have a case of the wrong director for the project. A director with the confidence to take on these subjects seems to have been required instead. Perhaps then we would have gotten something with more substance to experience.
Adams and Close give it their all (perhaps give too much) and look the part. Yet something is missing even in their roles as if they were given have a description of their characters. They were left to go and find the other half on their own to middling success. But even they struggle and as an audience. You can tell they are trying too hard to get something out of their characters.
Adams tries her best to show the possible endless cycle someone with addiction could and in a lot of cases do go through. However it is a misguided performance not helped by the writing of the opiod and drug crisis long spiraling out of the control. Taylor and Howard try to redeem her, but that isn’t what her story is about if anything they should have gone further down the unlikeable route with her and bring in more pity upon her.
One point that needs to be raised, we see photos and footage of the real family at the end and while Close looks eerily like the part, we see glimpses of Mamaw being fun and playful and for some reason Howard has decided to omit that side of her. Instead leaving us with this tough persona who is trying to do right. A person who threatens to run people over or set them on fire. While there is a need for her character to be that way to show why Bev takes the journey she does. We see this tough woman, chase her grandchildren down a driveway, blowing bubbles at them and smiling away.
A lot of the footage she is in fact smiling, but we barely get that in the film. We needed that, we needed to see the full scope of this woman. By hindering us from those traits of her, we are robbed of fully understanding her. This stops us from fully understanding why Bev is now the way she is. Close eventually gives us a caricature of a performance that loses all of its might under heavy prosthetics, a true shame.
Gabriel Basso is fine as the adult J.D. Though he struggles with the emotional side of his performance when he is up against Adams who is at a constant quivering mess. This role needed someone as strong as Adams for it to work and he just can’t live up to it. Which is not his fault by the way. He is stuck with a character that is effectively spinning his wheels at all times while the rest of the cast carry on forward.
Thus he becomes the forgotten person in a film about his relationship with these two women. Even if we spend most of our running time with him, we spend little of our emotional time in his presence. Howard decides otherwise and forces him to be a side character in his own story. Howard tries to have his cake and eat it, by attempting to tell both the story of J.D.’s upbringing and the feel-good nature of him making it to Yale. He fails as the charismatic and dramatic nature of the women in J.D.’s life take over the film, swallowing him helplessly up.
These are performances that feel forced. Adams and Close may be dressed and look the part. However, they are not as believable as first thought. Both had been lined up for dead on Oscar nominations, while they still might get them, there have been too many better performances this year to warrant it to them. The Academy will do as they do of course, but this time, just because two name actresses perform better than the rest of the cast and help their film be in some way watchable, does not mean that they deserve nominations for it. They’re over the top nature removes any subtlety that should be present. A middle road is a lovely place though…
Hillbilly Elegy should not be bland, yet it has been purposely made to be so. This is a film that could have said something, maybe not profound, but something. It refuses to, as the middle lane is safe and well worn. Ron Howard knows more than most directors how to make that safe film. He is a solid pair of hands afterall. At a time where boundaries are to be pushed and prodded in cinema. Howard falls back on what he knows best, which simply does not work anymore. Hillbilly Elegy proves that being safe isn’t what is needed at this moment in time. An almost unforgivable, instantly forgettable misfire.
HILLBILLY ELEGY will be streaming on Netflix from November 24th
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