Hillbilly Elegy is based on the memoir of the same name by J. D. Vance (Gabriel Basso) and follows his story as a Yale law student who faces issues when he is called back to his childhood home in Ohio after his mother, Bev (Amy Adams) overdoses on heroin. Directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker, Ron Howard with the screenplay written by Vanessa Taylor (who has received an Oscar nomination for co-writing The Shape of Water). The film flits between the present day J.D. who is having to travel to Ohio to help get Bev back on track and flashbacks showing J.D. as a child growing up in a broken home as Bev’s lack of stability leads to him being put in the care of his grandmother, Mamaw (Glenn Close). Hillbilly Elegy has been the subject of much controversy from the release of the book and even more so with the release of the film.
Ron Howard is a director who has a clear passion and love for filmmaking. His strongest deliveries are when he focuses on biopics with Apollo 13 (1995), A Beautiful Mind (2001) and Frost/Nixon (2008) proving to be his most successful. What makes these films so strong is the connection Howard brings with the source material. On paper, Hillbilly Elegy should have proved to be a success for Howard and bring him his most critically successful film since Frost/Nixon. The memoir contains a lot of political subtext as it delves into his own Republican tendencies and attacks on Democrats, particularly under the Obama administration. This is where much of the controversy lies and with Howard being hugely Democratic himself, he decided to take any political context out of the film altogether. I think this is a huge mistake and a reason why the film doesn’t reach its full potential. Of course Vance and Howard clearly have different political values which is absolutely fine, but taking away Vance’s own political point of view in a story that is hugely ruled by its politics is taking away a big part of his own identity and characterisation. Howard needn’t direct the film in a light that “favours” the political party he opposes but I think the context should have been included even in the background.
Now to discuss the acting performances. Amy Adams has been touted as the lead in this film and I have to say that in my opinion, that is purely a tactic to win more awards. Do not be fooled, Amy Adams is in a supporting role in this film and it should be categorised as such. This isn’t anything against Adams or her performance but it is a very misleading top billing. The true lead performances in this film come from Owen Asztalos and Gabriel Basso as young and adult J.D, respectively. Both do a really decent job capturing J.D’s struggle to fit in and his determination to do well in school and work towards a career in law. Asztalos, in particular, does a great job with the conflict scenes in which he sees his family life breaking apart without fully understanding what is going on.
In support, we have Amy Adams as Bev and Glenn Close as Mamaw. Clearly the stars of the show, both give it their all and do their best with the script. However, I do think Adams was miscast (a statement I never thought I would ever say). Adams is clearly trying so hard to convey Bev’s drug addiction and inability to lead a sober and stable life but the writing doesn’t do much for the character. We don’t feel any sympathy for Bev as she succumbs to her addiction and her behaviour seems to come across as erratic without reason or explanation. In the end, she is dropped off at a motel by J.D who has to leave to attend an interview. There doesn’t seem to be any closure to her issues in a way that feels substantial enough. Close, on the other hand, pulls off a more convincing performance that is subtle and captivates when she is onscreen. She isn’t onscreen a lot but I do think out of the two, she does give the better performance. Gaining a lot of favour for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, my personal support for now is actually going toward Amanda Seyfried in Mank. Close is going to get her Oscar but I really hope it is for an even better performance.
Overall, Hillbilly Elegy is a film that does fall into the Oscar bait category. With Adams and Close being the living actresses with the most Academy Award nominations without winning one, the film is clearly driving the agenda to add that Oscar to their collections. However, I am a firm believer in giving awards to the performances that deserve it and both women have carried off performances that should have won in my opinion (Amy Adams for Best Supporting Actress in The Master and Glenn Close for Best Leading Actress in Fatal Attraction). I think giving either one an Oscar for their performances in Hillbilly Elegy would be a huge disservice to the phenomenal careers the two of them have had. They do the best with the material and direction they have been given but neither performance is in the top 5 (even top 10) for either actress. When summarising Adams or Close’s careers, it’s highly doubtful that Hillbilly Elegy is going to be discussed among their greatest films.
What did you think of Hillbilly Elegy? Let me know in the comments below!
Hillbilly Elegy is available to view on Netflix.