Hillbilly Elegy is the cinematic equivalent of Thanksgiving leftovers on the Wednesday after the big holiday. They both have all the makings of something good – whether its mashed potatoes, stuffing, Amy Adams, or Glenn Close. It may even be topped with gravy or directed by Ron Howard.
And yet, there is something off about it. Could it be that it’s familiar without being as good as the first couple of times you enjoyed it? Could it be that it’s somehow overcooked AND undercooked?
Or maybe it’s as simple as the fact that six day old Thanksgiving food will never be as good as 3:00 PM on Thursday Thanksgiving food. And that’s what Hillbilly Elegy is: Six day old Thanksgiving food.
Something Is Missing
Movies that are released around this time of year come with a sort of expectation. Whether fair or not, we have been conditioned to expect one of two types of movies. Big crowd pleasers – the type to take your parents or kids to on the Friday after Thanksgiving or during the purgatory week between Christmas and New Years – is the first.
The second type is the prestige film. The kind that your mom will call you about early next year and say, “What’s this movie that got nominated for ten Oscars? I’ve never even heard of it!” Some movies fit in the very narrow space of the venn diagram and become monster hits that also receive award nominations. And then there are… the others.
“Hillbilly Elegy is the cinematic equivalent of Thanksgiving leftovers on the Wednesday after the big holiday.”
The “others” are the movies that attempt to fit in one of those two categories and utterly fail. This is the kind that someone will offhandedly mention a year or two from now and you’ll be like, “oh wow, I forgot about that movie.” Despite its best efforts – and trust me, this movie is REALLY trying to be a prestige film – Hillbilly Elegy sits comfortably in this category.
The Cast Is Great
Based on the 2016 memoir of the same name by J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy is one of many Netflix titles this year with hopes of being recognized as one of 2020’s best come awards season.
With a cast headlined by two perennial Academy favorites (for nominations, anyway, as both have, famously, never ended up on stage accepting the award), written by one of the writers of a past Best Picture winner, and directed by Ron Howard, who has helmed many past nominees, it seems like a slam dunk on paper.
Unfortunately, the film never really comes together in a cohesive way.
“… it seems like a slam dunk on paper. Unfortunately, the film never really comes together in a cohesive way.”
The story is about the sort of serious subject matter that begs, and deserves, to be taken seriously.
Confusing Time Cuts
The film cuts back and forth between the late 90s/early 00s when the main character, J.D. Vance, is growing up in Ohio and the 2010s when J.D. has seemingly fought his way out of the life that he seemed destined for and is now on his way to studying at Yale.
The film uses the flashback scenes to set up J.D.’s traumatic childhood and the circumstances that he had to overcome. His mother (Adams) is battling a heroin addiction and is both physically and verbally abusive. To the point where Vance has to be taken in by his Mamaw (Close) who raises him as her own.
The Writing Issue
The most glaring area in which the film comes up short is the writing. As someone who has not read the book that it is based on, it is hard for me to know how much to attribute to the author and how much to attribute to the screenwriter.
Some of the dialogue very well could have been lifted word for word from actual conversations that J.D. had with his family. Even giving it the benefit of the doubt, though, a lot of the dialogue sounds unnatural. It’s as if someone who has never been to the midwest is guessing the sort of things that people in the midwest would say.
“The most glaring area in which the film comes up short is the writing.”
The writing issue extends past just the dialogue though. Earlier when I mentioned that the story in the past takes place in the late 90s/early 00s, its because I truly don’t know when it took place. I know that there was a title card that said 1997, but beyond that I am not sure.
Hard To Follow
The film gave not so subtle hints at the passage of time. Stuff like mentioning the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal and the war in Iraq help to denote a passage of time but without those things, I would have been lost. Even with those period markers,
I had a difficult time understanding where we were in the story. Young J.D. never seemed to physically change in a way to help show that years had passed. This sort of change, even if done subtly, is important in a story like this. Relying on soundbites from NBC Nightly News is a lazy way of not confronting a confusing timeline.
Serious Topics Left Unanswered
Additionally, the movie veers into melodrama way too often. These topics are serious. Drug addiction is serious. Abuse is serious. Problems facing low income families are serious. And while I think the cast and crew take these things seriously, they never feel fully represented in the ways that they can utterly destroy families and destroy lives.
They are merely glossed over in a way that feels cheap. We should care about the circumstances plaguing our characters more than we actually do. This is perhaps the most damaging quality of the film.
“Additionally, the movie veers into melodrama way too often.”
Still Worth Watching
Not everything is bad though. In fact, I wouldn’t even say the movie, as a whole, is bad. It’s just fine. Which is disappointing in its own way. But to come into a film with expectations so high and then blame it for not reaching your expectations is not fair.
And I know that I am guilty of this, myself. Even when you are disappointed, it is important to meet the film where it is and find redeeming qualities where you can.
“Not everything is bad though. In fact, I wouldn’t even say the movie, as a whole, is bad. It’s just fine.”
Solid Acting Performances
For me, the biggest redeeming quality of the film is the acting. Amy Adams and Glenn Close are shining lights in the darkness. While I hold the belief that neither woman should finally win their elusive Oscar in honor of their performances here.
I still believe they give solid performances. Due to the writing, neither of their characters are particularly nuanced, but that doesn’t entirely hold them back.
Amy Adams Role
Adams, in particular, gives a performance that is unlike most of her past performances. Here, her character’s struggle lends itself to Adams reaching a vulnerable place in which you feel for her character and want her to get better.
You understand why J.D. is not giving up on her, despite the abuse she has hurled his way. This character could have been almost offensive in how it portrays those struggling with addiction. With Adams bringing humanity to the role, it mostly sidesteps that trap.
“Amy Adams and Glenn Close are shining lights in the darkness.”
As her mother and J.D.’s Mamaw, Close makes lemonade out of some sour lemons. As mentioned, the dialogue is poor throughout most of the film. This is really apparent with Mamaw.
Some of the things she says left me flabbergasted, wondering,” what does that even mean?!” Despite being written as a caricature, Close brings some depth to Mamaw, largely in the way that her relationship with J.D. evolves over time.
And it is that sort of relationship study that makes the movie compelling in the limited amount that it is.
Even in the most melodramatic of ways, the movie does go some interesting, if familiar, routes. And while this doesn’t entirely ruin the film, it is a glaring feature that, if tweaked, could have made for a much better piece of entertainment.
As Mamaw might say: There are Good Oscar Bait Films, Bad Oscar Bait Films, and Neutral. Hillbilly Elegy is neutral. While I can’t fully recommend it, you could do a lot worse.
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