Hillbilly Elegy – Film Review
by Fran Winston
Directed by: Ron Howard
Starring: Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Gabriel Basso, Haley Bennett, Freida Pinto, Bo Hopkins, Owen Asztalos
Streaming on Netflix from September 20th
Based on the biographical book of the same name by J.D. Vance, this is the story of three generations of a family from Middleton, Ohio told through the eyes of the author – the first member of his family to strike out of poverty and make good. Basso plays the protagonist who tries to help his drug-addicted mother Bev (Adams) while putting himself through college. He is often supported during his mother’s instabilities by his Mawmaw (Close) Bev’s mother.
While a multi-generational story sounds rather epic, this is all told from one perspective. Therefore, we never really get the full story of J.D’s young grandparents fleeing to Middleton because Mawmaw was pregnant, nor the menial jobs they worked to support their family. Equally, his mother is a nurse so clearly more educated than the story would like us to believe. Yes, she falls down a rabbit hole of drugs but it seems very convenient and her descent is incredibly fast. It is as if the movie wants to suit J.D’s narrative without much thought for the other characters in his life. Even his sister, who lived through the same childhood as him, is somewhat of a footnote.
Despite this Glenn Close gives an amazing performance and totally embodies Mawmaw for better or worse. She is completely believable as the long-suffering, hard-bitten but loving matriarch of the family. Adams does well with what she’s given but often her character is almost a parody. Unsurprisingly, the most well-rounded character here is J.D but even his story seems to have a lot of gaps and inconsistencies in it.
The pacing is incredibly tedious. There are many scenes that could have been far shorter than they are and seem only to serve the purpose of trying to make J.D. more sympathetic to the audience. Unfortunately, that’s not how he comes across. Most of the time he seems rather self-centred and more interested in his own future than his family’s welfare.
This wants to be a melodrama but fails. Close is worth watching but it is very slow and you don’t really care that much about the outcome. It has a lot of stereotypes and very little in the way of character evolution. It has been described as “poverty porn” and it is an accurate description. Close will earn accolades for this but overall it fails on many levels. That’s a real shame as it was an opportunity to highlight the struggle and triumphs of a poor community.