Hillbilly Elegy (United States, 2020)

November 24, 2020
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Hillbilly Elegy Poster

Here’s a rare example of a Netflix prestige film that neither runs too long nor overstays its welcome. While some of the A-list directors working for the streaming distributor have taken the opportunity to meander and add bloat to otherwise worthwhile projects, Ron Howard has developed this project exactly as he would have made it if it had been intended for a traditional release. Cleanly shot and well-edited, Hillbilly Elegy tells a story that neither drags nor wanders into tangential cul-de-sacs. It also features a number of strong performances, at least two of which will be considered for awards plaudits (if such a thing exists in this fractured and uncertain release environment).

Hillbilly Elegy has an old-fashioned feel, meaning it’s the kind of movie that was once popular in Hollywood but has largely gone out-of-vogue. This is a traditional character-based memoir, chronicling the progress of the author/narrator, J.D. Vance (played by Gabriel Basso as an adult and Owen Asztalos as a kid), through two critical periods in his life – one as a teenager and the other as a graduate student (the years being circa 1998 and during the early 2010s). As is almost always the case with bio-pics and memoirs, some characters have been eliminated, marginalized, or combined to declutter the narrative. One thing Howard and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor did was to elide those portions of Vance’s source book that focused on political elements. (For example, the book is highly critical of hillbilly culture and spends a fair number of pages providing evidence of his thesis.) This avoids alienating a potential segment of the audience. For better or worse, it also takes away the book’s edge and replaces it with a vanilla center.

The “present” timeframe introduces Vance during his time at Yale Law School, where he has developed a life away from his Appalachian roots. He has a girlfriend, Usha (Freida Pinto), and an opportunity for a prestigious internship. But family issues – specifically the drug addiction of his mother, Bev (Amy Adams) – pull at him. A desperate call from his sister, Lindsay (Haley Bennett), forces him into a 10-hour drive from New Haven to Middletown, Ohio to discover that his mother has no health insurance and nowhere to stay once the hospital releases her.

Interwoven with the 2010s scenes are a mosaic of memories from more than a decade earlier. Although brought up in Ohio, J.D.’s family hailed from Kentucky and their so-called “hillbilly values” form a cornerstone of their existence. During his childhood, his mother was unstable (possibly bipolar) with a history of drug addiction. His grandmother, Mamaw (Glenn Close), became his guardian, and used tough love to teach him life lessons. These coming-of-age flashbacks (which comprise more of the running time than the “present” scenes) establish the fabric necessary to understand how conflicted Vance is about being pulled back into his family’s web.

As with many dramas, Hillbilly Elegy works in part because the lead character is relatable and provides us with a portal into a world that some will find foreign. Equally important is the quality of acting which extends from the high-profile names at the top to some of the lesser performers filling smaller roles. Both Glenn Close and Amy Adams are likely to be in consideration for spaces the Supporting Actress category. Close’s role is more showy but Adams has more screen time and her role is perhaps more challenging because there are times when she is unsympathetic (bordering on villainous). Gabriel Basso and Owen Asztalos do something often neglected in movies that feature a younger and older version of the same character – make the viewer believe that they are playing the same person. One can easily believe that the J.D. portrayed by Asztalos would grow up to become the one essayed by Basso.

There’s nothing in Howard’s direction that could be considered ostentatious or distracting. Throughout his career, he has been at his best when he stood at arm’s length and allowed the story and characters to dominate. That’s the case in Hillbilly Elegy and, although some may argue that the movie soft-peddles the book by eliding most of the controversial political aspects, others will find that what remains to be an affecting story of a man’s conflicted relationship with family members who have bigger-than-life personalities and are as capable of doing great harm as they are of displaying deep love.

Hillbilly Elegy (United States, 2020)

Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 2020-11-24
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Drugs, Mature Themes)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1