Hillbilly Elegy: Oscar Bait Falls Short

Amy Adams as Bev in Hillbilly Elegy. Photo credit: Lacey Terrell/NETFLIX © 2020

Hillbilly Elegy launches on Netflix this fall as an awards contender for Amy Adams and Glenn Close but their performances cannot save the film.

I’m a Kentucky native so naturally, I like that there were scenes set in Jackson, Kentucky.  Having a film directed by Ron Howard and starring Amy Adams and Glenn Close is enough to pique my interest.  But there needs to be more here in order to elevate the film and take it to the next level.  Basically, Amy Adams playing a “shitty mom” in Hillbilly Elegy is not enough. What is it that they say?  You can choose your friends but you cannot choose your family.  This is a film that should have a story of both hope and healing.  Unfortunately, the film falls short.

The film is told through J.D. Vance’s (Gabriel Basso as an adult, Owen Asztalos as a teenager) eyes.  Vance’s family originates from Jackson, Ky. He spent summers in the city while growing up.  However, his family left Kentucky for Southern Ohio.  Before heading to Yale Law, J.D. would serve in the United States Marines.  J.D.’s mother, Bev (Amy Adams), suffers from addiction and J.D. would end up being raised by Mamaw (Glenn Close).  That’s the gist of J.D.’s life, anyway.

Howard is more than capable as a director so the film’s failure is not entirely his fault.  Nor is it the fault of Adams and Close.  I feel bad about this, too, because this film is based on a true story.  This isn’t to say anything negative about J.D. Vance’s story. Here is a third-generation family member born in Appalachia and he was able to get out and go to Yale Law.  Not everybody is lucky and he had no choice but to return back home.  You also can’t help but feel bad for his circumstances and growing up the way he did.  Nobody wants to grow up with abusive parents.

The frequent back and forth isn’t particularly helpful for the film’s narrative.  We go from 1997 (Al Gore!  Monica Lewinsky!) to more recent years.  Would I have personally made different choices in terms of storytelling?  Most certainly.  I’m not going to tell the filmmakers how to do their job but I feel that the film would have told a stronger story by bookending with recent years before going back into the past.  But again, that’s just me.  Take Amy Adams and Glenn Close out of the picture and it would result in the typical melodramatic film that you can find any given night on cable television.

Adapting memoirs into movies are tough.  There are things that are certainly bound to be left out.  At the same time, there is so much pressure to live up to the source material.  This is one where the book is a bestseller and the film doesn’t live up to the expectations.

Amy Adams and Glenn Close are both deserving of Oscars but Hillbilly Elegy never rises above being awards bait at best.

DIRECTOR:  Ron Howard
SCREENWRITER:  Vanessa Taylor
CAST:  Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Gabriel Basso, Haley Bennett, Freida Pinto, Bo Hopkins, Owen Asztalos

Netflix launches Hillbilly Elegy on November 24, 2020. Grade: 2/5

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.