Hillbilly Elegy: Netflix Film Review

Hillbilly Elegy

I love Glenn Close and Amy Adams as individuals so I was excited to see them sharing the screen together in Ron Howard‘s domestic drama Hillbilly Elegy but damn, this film is a tough watch.

In this film adaptation of J.D. Vance‘s bestselling memoir of the same name, adult J.D. (Gabriel Basso), a Yale Law student, is on the brink of a promising summer associate job in 2011 when he receives a call from his sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett) who informs him that their mum Bev (Adams) is in hospital following a heroin overdose. As he heads home to deal with the latest family dilemma, the film flashes back to 1997, when a young and pudgy J.D. (Owen Asztalos) lives at home in Middletown, Ohio, with Bev, a former nurse and drug addict who has uncontrollable mood swings, can act violently, and can barely look after herself, let alone her children. It tells the story of how he managed to turn his life around with the help of his grandmother Mamaw (Close).

I have quite a few issues with the movie – and not just its awful title. It is just so stressful to watch these characters, particularly in the flashbacks. They are repetitive as they serve to illustrate the same point – how difficult Bev was to have as a mother – and sure, they are illuminating in a sense, but there are so many and they basically consist of constant yelling. I just wanted to tell them to shut the hell up. It was unpleasant and tiresome and a lot to sit through.

All I felt for Bev was hatred and that’s the screenplay’s fault. She is written in a stereotypical, one-dimensional way so we never get to know her fully or understand why she is the way she is. Sure, this is J.D.’s story and not his mother’s and there are some flashbacks to her childhood that shed some light on her behaviour, but it’s not enough. I wanted more substance and depth – to get under her skin – when we just get this monster. I wish there had been a couple more scenes of her in better times to give us a greater sense of who she once was and to balance out all the drama and screaming. Mamaw gets a slightly better deal as she has compassion for her grandchildren and wants to help, but she is no angel – she is mean, wicked, and has a history of domestic violence too.

When the trailer first came out for this, people joked that it was obvious Oscar bait and I thought that was a pretty cynical view, but now I have seen it, I can confirm this is quite accurate. These actresses, who have both been nominated for Oscars many times and never won, are doing the most to get another run at the gold with their performances here and I would even say they’re trying too hard. They both go for it and throw themselves into their characters, who are so showy and melodramatic that their performances come across as OTT. Their big acting will definitely get them noticed by the Academy but I reckon Close, covered in all those prosthetics, has more of an edge as Mamaw has more dimension, some great facial expressions (she’d cut you down with a stare!) and presented more of a physical challenge. It’s mind-boggling seeing Close go from The Wife to Hillbilly Elegy, but she just about convinces. I wasn’t fully sold on Adams as Bev though.

A story which depicts a personal triumph against the odds or in the face of adversity normally usually makes me emotional and leaves me feeling inspired but the only thing I felt with this film was pity for J.D. and Lindsay. I think that’s because there’s not enough meat on its bones, it isn’t grounded in much political or socio-economic context, and implies that if you simply apply yourself at school, you will rise up out of poverty, get into a university and then an Ivy League law school and that’s hardly ever the case. Very disappointing.

Streaming on Netflix from Tuesday 24th November

Rating: 2 out of 5.

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