When Ron Howard’s next project was first announced, a drama starring Amy Adams and Glenn Close, the Oscar buzz immediately began. Two of the top actresses on the Academy’s All-Time Snub List working with a filmmaker who’s taken home both Best Picture and Best Director seemed like the perfect combination of prestige and Oscar bait to help Adams and Close finally earn some long-overdue recognition.
Then came the teaser poster for “Hillbilly Elegy,” followed by the trailer release. Things weren’t looking so good anymore. Shortly thereafter came an abysmal 26% on Rotten Tomatoes and the film’s fate was sealed. A once-proud Oscar frontrunner plummeted to being regarded as one of the year’s worst films.
“Hillbilly Elegy” is a modern-day take on the American dream, told through the eyes of three generations of the Vance family in the small town of Middleton, Ohio. While it’s based on the memoirs of J.D. Vance – a book that reached the top of the New York Times bestseller list – the film adaptation fails to dive deep enough into the controversies that made the book so intriguing. The memoir sparked discussion concerning its rhetoric on poverty and the white working class in Appalachia, but by not fully fleshing out these controversies, the film is doomed from ever reaching its full potential.
There’s no question about the talent packed within the film’s cast, as Close plays the chain smoking Mamaw and Adams as her daughter, Bev. Gabriel Basso plays Bev’s son, J.D., the author of the memoir, while Haley Bennett portrays his sister Lindsay. Despite all the adult star power here, the story is at its best when focused on young J.D., played most convincingly by Owen Asztalos.
The story moves as a series of prolonged flashbacks through the eyes of J.D., who is currently studying law at Yale but has come home due to a family emergency. During an important dinner – one where he’s setting up interviews for law clerking jobs to help fund his next semester – J.D. gets a phone call that his mother is in the hospital. Unfortunately for him, this does not come as a surprise. Bev is a heroin addict who has been using and relapsing throughout his entire life. Now, J.D. is plunged back into this emotional trauma while he’s in the midst of trying to secure his future. The subject matter of scenes like this – among many other moments – is extremely heavy, but it’s clear that they would have hit harder in the hands of a more capable actor than Basso.
Throughout the film and its many flashbacks there are glimpses of a cohesive story – one that might be filled with nuance and subtly – but everything ultimately gets boiled down to the broad strokes. The cliché-ridden story can’t seem to get past its determination to over-simplify everything. When young J.D. is rebelling and smoking pot with his friends, he has long hair and wears Metallica T-shirts, you know, because he’s bad. The platitudes don’t stop there, though. You know every character’s motivations and relevance to the story based on whatever stereotype has been assigned to them.
There will most certainly be buzz surrounding the film because of Close and Adams, and while they both certainly stand out, their characters are so one-note and trite that it’s hard to shower them with too much praise. Basso as the lead is simply not convincing enough. The wide array of emotions needed to play this character are lost on him, and the end result is a performance that’s sullen, agitated and, to be frank, whiney.
Written by Oscar-nominee Vanessa Taylor (“The Shape of Water”) and directed by Oscar-winner Howard, everything about this screams Oscar bait. Regrettably, that’s exactly what it is, but don’t expect “Hillbilly Elegy” to get any nibbles.
Howard has created something that is paint-by-numbers, without any true substance or convincing heart being displayed. There are plenty of ingredients that could be used to make “Hillbilly Elegy” the perfect balance of awards-worthy drama and childhood success story, but ultimately the filmmakers’ fail to get past the surface of this blue-collar family, which hamstrings any opportunity for success.
Film critic and member of the North Carolina Film Critic Association.