Review: Hillbilly Elegy is shameless Oscar bait

Film adaptation of J.D. Vance's memoir features hammy performances and zero nuance

HILLBILLY ELEGY (Ron Howard). 116 minutes. Streaming now on Netflix. Rating: NN

Between them, Amy Adams and Glenn Close have earned a whopping 13 Oscar nominations – without a win. We might have to add two more to that list soon, since their acting in Hillbilly Elegy is the kind of over-the-top, meme-worthy work the Academy often acknowledges. (See Melissa Leo and Christian Bale in The Fighter.)

The film is a creaky, heavy-handed adaptation of J.D. Vance’s memoir about growing up and eventually escaping a cycle of poverty that goes back to his family’s Appalachian roots in Kentucky, and continues in a middle-class but bleak existence in Ohio’s Rust Belt.

In 2011, J.D. (Gabrielle Basso) is a clean-cut Yale law student who’s hoping to get a summer clerkship so he can pay the $20,000 remaining tuition after factoring in his scholarship and income from three part-time jobs. During a tense week of interviews with prospective law firms, he gets a call from his sister (Haley Bennett) that his mother Bev (Adams) is in the hospital after overdosing.

And so good son J.D. makes the 10-hour trek back to Ohio and attempts to secure his mom a place to stay for the night, all while avoiding calls from his concerned girlfriend Usha (Freida Pinto), who’s also a Yale law student. Meanwhile, he’s got a big job interview the following morning.

Lots of flashbacks

Of course, his interactions with his mom dredge up memories of the past, which we see played out in flashbacks involving the young J.D. (Owen Asztalos) fighting with his mom over things small (broken Easter eggs) and big (the fact that Bev upends their lives whenever she meets a new man).

When Bev’s drug use gets out of control – and Adams has done her grandstandy shouting at police officers, angry shopkeepers and ex-boyfriends – J.D. asks his Mamaw, or grandmother (Close), to raise him. That’s when Close gets to demonstrate a different kind of overacting involving flat, muttered-under-her-breath statements that are meant to illustrate she’s a tough cookie.

There’s no nuance or shape to Vanessa Taylor’s script. J.D. suggests Bev got hooked on prescription pain killers while working as a nurse, but we’re not shown how or why. And apart from a prologue set in Kentucky, it’s unclear what Vance is trying to say about how the family’s loyalty code has prevented them from getting ahead.

Lack of political nuance

In the introduction to his book, Vance wrote about how America’s working poor have switched from voting Democrat to Republican, an intriguing notion that’s not explored in the film.

Director Ron Howard seems particularly uneasy with the material, unable to frame Bev and Mamaw’s stories in a way that makes them human. A couple of scenes shouldn’t have made the final cut. In one, Close is seen nodding with pride over an algebra test that J.D. has just aced; no living actor, even one as good as Close, could make this moment work.

Oddly enough, the subtlest performance in Hillbilly Elegy comes from Bennett as J.D.’s sister. She underplays the part, and her rapport with Basso feels authentic. When she laughs about what it’s like to fake it to get by in middle-class society, it says a lot more about class in America than the rest of the film.

And her knowing bit of dialogue hits harder than the histronics delivered by her more famous, Oscar-nominated co-stars.


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