Hillbilly Elegy seemingly tackles serious issues in American society. It does address important topics at a surface level. The cycle of abuse, class division, and self identity are all touched on. Powerfully acted and very interesting, the latest release from Hollywood legend Ron Howard is a fine movie that ultimately does not seem to know what story it wants to tell.
Far from being a bad movie, it has been lambasted by critics for everything from being tone deaf to the obnoxious acting of Amy Adams. The most common complaint seems to boil down to Hillbilly Elegy is a story of poor people told through the eyes of the most elite rich. (This is especially ironic considering many of these reviews are coming from what can be seen as “elite” review sites.)
The harsh words for Adams are especially surprising. While Glenn Close received deserved – albeit, almost apologetic praise – Adams has been the target of much critical vitriol. Many have pointed out the character is little more than a vehicle (more on that later) with two volumes: loud and annoying. Her portrayal of the drug addicted Bev has been called capable at best to inauthentic.
Adams does a wonderful job of portraying an addicted single mother who is in over her head. There is a vulnerability in Bev that is not a result of weakness or failure. Hillbilly Elegy posits that she is the product of her environment. Bev is caught up in a cycle of abuse and despair that she had the tools to escape from, but just did not use them. (Frustratingly, the movie never explains why she could not but her son could.)
In the end, the story seems to hint that Bev was unable to move on with her life due to getting pregnant at young age. Close’s Mawmaw also says she could have done a better job. This is punctuated at the end when Hillbilly Elegy turns to montages to show how J.D. was able to get into Yale. It is an odd moment which almost seems to say that generations of abuse can be overcome through one chance Meals on Wheels visit.
That is not the story Hillbilly Elegy wants to tell, however. At least, it is not the main one. As important as Bev is to the film, she is just a part of J.D.’s story. It is telling that Close and Bev are heavily featured in the movie’s promotional materials. The two are the most interesting parts of the movie by far. J.D.’s problems amount to using the proper cutlery at a fancy dinner party and talking about his family’s past to his girlfriend who literally phones in her performance. J.D.’s story is a mix of flashbacks and modern events, yet there is never a sense of what makes him different from his mother.
The cursory glance given at the division between classes is a perfect example. J.D.’s social awkwardness at an upscale party early in Hillbilly Elegy leads to a confrontation with one of the guests. The flashbacks give an idea of where J.D. has come from and the film make allusions to a code among the people he grew up around, but things do not go much deeper than that. There is no ongoing mental anguish or even much of a visceral divide as J.D looks and sounds no different than the others applying for the same position he is.
In the end, that may be what Hillbilly Elegy is all about. Despite the perceived differences between people, the biggest difference between everyone is class. – and this can be overcome with the right amount of persistence. If that is the case, the movie never quite gets that message across. A pair of amazing performances from Glenn Close and Amy Adams are the true highlight. Everything else is window dressing in an engaging movie that just misses the mark.
Hillbilly Elegy comes to Netflix on November 24.
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