My thoughts on Hillbilly Elegy are a tangle–kinda like if you pulled several different headphones out of a junk drawer at once. On the one hand, this a passionate, well-made movie, based on somebody’s real life. Lots of money and talent are on full display. On the flip-side, Elegy is a sweaty, overwrought melodrama, rife with people screamin’, wrasslin’, and cryin’ big ol’ plump tears. The lead actors deliver showy performances that mainly serve to draw attention to themselves. Ultimately, the story never attains the dramatic lift for which it aspires, and the result is a movie that rings surprisingly hollow.
Adapted from J.D. Vance’s memoir, Elegy kicks off somewhere in the Kentucky backwoods. It’s the late 90s, and J.D. (Owen Asztalos, as a child) and his kin reenact a few scenes from Alan Jackson’s “Chattahoochee” video: They tromp through the woods and splash in the brick-brown river water–where there’s a lot about livin’ and a little ’bout love. Despite the fact that he’s from Ohio, J.D. makes it clear he identifies with these annual summers spent in Kentucky.
It’s here that we also meet J.D.’s immediate family. Mamaw (Glenn Close) is his blunt, wizened grandmother, the aged star around which the entire family orbits. Bev, J.D.’s mother, is in throes of a pill addiction, and prone to violent mood swings. His older sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett) turns into an adult before her time, and must often act as caregiver and voice of reason for the family.
The film intercuts between these flashbacks and J.D. (Gabriel Basso) as a hungry law student at Yale. He is in a happy relationship with Usha (Freida Pinto), and scores job interviews with a few big-time firms. This fast-track to a better life gets derailed when J.D. gets some startling news from home. I don’t want to give too much away, but you can probably guess who it’s about. This tragedy forces J.D. to trek back his hillbilly origins and confront his complicated relationship with his abusive mother.
That description and the high-powered cast will probably make you think that Elegy is a bold dramatic movie, with lots of emotional payoffs. Unfortunately, everything about it feels very mechanical, very written. At any film school, any professor worth his Kurosawa posters will tell you that if you’re hired to adapt a book into a movie, don’t just write the book. Yet, over and over, writers overload their script with clunky voiceover narration. Elegy commits this same sin, spoon-feeding us exposition, rather than allowing the film to show it to us.
Also, in spite of–or, perhaps because of–these characters being inspired by real-life people, much of their behavior rings false. For example, Mamaw is presented as a saintly figure. She’s crude and plain-spoken, to be sure, but her role in the script is to always say and do the right things at the right time. This is clearly the author’s idealized vision of her, and this sanitizing robs the film of much of its dramatic heft. For all the big emotional beats in Hillbilly Elegy, much of it feels startlingly contrived and one-dimensional.
As for the performances, well…I’m gonna go on a tangent, so bear with me: Remember that scene in Wayne’s World, where Mike Myers is trying to win back Tia Carrere? He starts splashing fake tears onto his face and blubbering how he never learned to read. A subtitle at the bottom of the screen flashes “OSCAR CLIP,” and the joke is made clear. Myers is fake-hamming it up for the Academy.
I don’t want to say that’s happening here, but…I kinda think that’s happening here. Adams and Close make big speeches and chew the scenery non-stop. And maybe that’s true to life. It just doesn’t feel authentic. I kept waiting for “OSCAR CLIP” to pop up on the screen. Both leads are dynamic actresses who’ve done great work, but they never made me forget that I’m watching people perform.
People who can suspend that disbelief may love Hillbilly Elegy. I came away cold. This is so much sound and fury, signifying nothing. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a blah response to a film with so much talent. (And that also goes for director Ron Howard, who seems curiously invisible here.) If you want a film that covers similar terrain with more oomph and skill, check out the recent Devil All the Time. I remember being pretty harsh on it, but after seeing the belligerent blandness of Hillbilly Elegy, my opinion has definitely improved.
115 min. R. Netflix.