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It requires serious cynicism to believe that any artist would make a piece of work solely for the sake of trying to win some shiny hardware, but the term “awards bait” does still have merit when applied to the feeling a particular kind of film gives off. Rather than being about the intention that went into creation, some movies seem to simply lack a particular raison d'etre in their existences beyond being material that classically catches the attention of those who vote in various guilds, academies, and organizations that give out annual trophies. They typically have something to showcase – like an impressive performance, or elaborate production design, or hyper-detailed costuming – but otherwise possess an emptiness in their storytelling.
Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy is such a film. It’s rich material from an acting perspective, as stars Amy Adams and Glenn Close play wild and flawed women of Appalachia trying to do right by their family, and they both sink their teeth into the meaty roles. That, unfortunately, is where the real substance ends, however. Based on a memoir, it has no real story to tell, but hopes to distract you from that fact with its non-linear construction and heightened circumstance. Save for its best performances, it’s merely another rote story about basic family drama and accepting one’s own roots, and is unable to possess any real emotional impact.
Hoping back and forth between a central narrative set in 2011 and events of the 1990s, the movie moves through the life of J.D. Vance (Gabriel Basso and Owen Asztalos) – a young man from a broken home who is studying law as a graduate student at Yale University. While trying to get a summer position that can help him afford tuition and be with his girlfriend (Freida Pinto), he gets a call from his sister (Haley Bennett) and is hit with the scary news that his mother, Bev (Amy Adams), has overdosed on heroin and is in the hospital. While he is waiting to hear about a final interview for a big opportunity, he opts to get in his car and make his way back to his family’s home in Ohio.
Bev gets a quick discharge from the hospital, having let her health insurance policy lapse, and J.D. finds himself with the responsibility of trying to find a safe place for her to recover and restart rehabilitation. Doing so inspires various memories of his teenage years, filled with the drama of living in poverty, his mother’s addictions and mental issues, and his relationship with his hard-nosed grandmother known familiarly as Mamaw (Glenn Close).
There is nothing unique or particularly compelling in Hillbilly Elegy’s story.
Hillbilly Elegy is based on J.D. Vance’s autobiographical memoir of the same name, and its scattershot storytelling is very much reflective of the source material in that it’s built as a pile of memories with no real purpose or defined structure. Vance makes for an inert protagonist, as we never actually see any of his accomplishments or are provided any context for how far he has come from his humble beginnings (the film tells us about but otherwise skips over his time in the military, and the only academic achievement we see is when he gets the highest grade in the class on a high school algebra test). He’s an entirely passive character, with all of the action involving him, but not actually functioning through him, and it gives the movie no room to grow.
Without any arcs to speak of, the film is left to congeal as an anthology set within the life of a random individual from Ohio, and while that does result in a few intense and dramatic moments being adapted, it’s not much of a cinematic experience stretched over 116 minutes. Its strength is found in personalities, and while that lends to some great performances, they can’t provide the bedrock that Hillbilly Elegy needs to succeed as an actual movie.
Amy Adams and Glenn Close both deliver impressive performances.
Far and away the best thing about the Ron Howard film is the turn from Amy Adams, which is in itself an interesting thing because it really is a wholly unpleasant performance. Bev clearly loves her family and wants to provide them the best life she can, but she is also a woman who exhibits symptoms of some mental health conditions and struggles in her battle with addiction – all of which is material that Adams uses to deliver some blistering moments. It’s a character without the same kind of awesome fortitude that we usually see from her work, and that makes it all the more powerful, not to mention that the character is shockingly horrible in moments. It’s an atypical turn from Adams in many respects, but an impressive one that further proves her versatility.
With Adams vying for Best Actress, that leaves Glenn Close with the fight for Best Supporting Actress, and it’s a field in which she’ll compete well with her Hillbilly Elegy turn. It’s most certainly a trope role – the family matriarch who gets shit done regardless of personal cost – but Close has a lot of fun with it. There is a particular unpleasantness that comes with her exhibited bigotry, which serves as a roadblock from really being able to appreciate the character, but it is a real transformative performance from the actor, complete with some impressive hair and make-up work that allows her to fully disappear physically.
It’s never a bad thing for a film to feature a pair of exceptional performances, but it does become a bad thing when those exceptional performances are all a film really has to offer. Thanks to Amy Adams and Glenn Close, Hillbilly Elegy is a title that may pop up a lot in the coming months, read on cards pulled out of envelopes by on-stage celebrities, but it’s a shame that those who watch the movie based on that hype will be left disappointed.