No two actresses working today are more overdue Oscars attention than Amy Adams and Glenn Close. Both are fantastic performers with years of awards-worthy work to their names, work that has often been overlooked in favour of safer, more obvious, and sometimes even bad acting. With Hillbilly Elegy, the pair give exactly these sorts of performances, gurning their way through a miserable slice of poverty porn that is straining so hard to be Oscar bait, it forgets to ever be a functional film in its own right.
Though it’s an adaptation of JD Vance’s presumably rather personal memoir, Hillbilly Elegy’s rags-to-riches story could hardly be more generic. Director Ron Howard and writer Vanessa Taylor hit every Southern cliché they can – listen out for multiple lines about your clan always having your back – in record time before piling on the melodrama. JD (Owen Asztalos as a teen, Gabriel Basso as a young man) is a bright but disillusioned kid, his home life complicated by his mother Bev (Adams), an unpredictable and childish opioid addict. In steps JD’s gruff but caring grandmother Mamaw (Close) to keep JD in line and make sure he does the work that will let him escape his family’s poverty.
Though there is an eminently forgettable sequence of JD feeling like an outsider at the impossibly posh Yale, Hillbilly Elegy concerns itself mostly with the intergenerational Vance household and all its conflicts. Unfortunately, not one of these characters is well-drawn enough to get you to care. Despite the film being based on his own autobiography, JD is a blank slate of a character, and both Asztalos and Basso give utterly flat performances. Meanwhile, Adams turns in some of the worst work of her career, all histrionics and distracting hair and makeup. Bev is painted and played as a cartoon villain throughout, and a late-game attempt to find pathos in her story falls flat.
Close gets one scene worthy of her talents, but she too is a victim of some overzealous uglification and is mostly on autopilot. It’s no more than the script deserves, with Mamaw (who never gets given a name) a collection of rote, crotchety one liners rather than an actual person. Almost every character here is nothing more than a bland plot device – pity poor Freida Pinto, as underserved as she’s ever been as a worried girlfriend on the other end of a phone. The sole exception is JD’s sister Lindsay, with Haley Bennett bringing some much needed nuance and warmth to the role.
Taylor’s dialogue is leaden, full of tortured metaphors and boring truisms, while Howard’s direction borders on self-parody. A lot of the shots here are downright ugly, and Howard makes completely uninspired use of Hans Zimmer’s phoned-in score. When Hillbilly Elegy first released as a book, it was feted as a piece of writing with *something to say* about America’s forgotten rural South. As a movie, it’s been reduced to its dullest possible version, with far less insight into the lives and struggles of everyday Kentuckians than, say, any given episode of Justified, all bogged down in a morass of awful acting.