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Netflix Review: Hillbilly Elegy

January 2, 2021

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

It’s hard to write about Hillbilly Elegy, director Ron Howard’s adaptation of J.D. Vance’s bestselling memoir about growing up poor in rural Appalachia, without getting into the discourse around it.

Take, for example, the awards season hopeful’s duelling scores on Rotten Tomatoes. The film has a “rotten” critics score (only 26% as of this writing), but has been given a “fresh” score by audiences, where it currently sits at a whopping 86%, in one of the starkest examples yet of the divide between critics and general audiences.

The film got ripped apart by most critics when it dropped on Netflix in November, and was essentially reduced to a punchline on social media. But it hasn’t been that harshly received by the majority of viewers, leading to accusations of critics being snobbish and out of touch with the masses. I watched the film the other night keeping a completely open mind, and what I found was something that, while far from being a great movie, is hardly deserving of the amount of vitriol it has received, either. It’s fine enough for what it is.

J.D. Vance (who is played as a kid by Owen Asztalos, and as an adult by Gabriel Basso) grew up in the economically depressed small town of Middletown, Ohio, and the film chooses to tell the story of his troubled childhood through flashbacks. In the film’s current day timeline, J.D. has gotten into Yale and is getting his law degree, the first in his family to go to university. But his legal career is threatened when he gets a call that his mother Bev (Amy Adams) has relapsed and overdosed on heroin.

J.D. is forced to return to his hometown and once again pick up the pieces, causing him to reflect on his childhood and how he was saved by his chain-smoking, tough as nails grandma (Glenn Close) as his mother struggled with addiction. The story itself is an interesting one that offers an empathetic glimpse into poverty in rural America. In the scenes at Yale, we see how J.D. feels somewhat embarrassed by his upbringing, including keeping his mother’s addiction from his girlfriend Usha (Freida Pinto), and his character arc in the film has him learning to come to terms with how and where he grew up.

The main draw of Hillbilly Elegy is obviously the acting. The film is fronted by a pair of actresses who have both been nominated for multiple Oscars throughout their careers, but have never won, and there is a go-for-broke quality to the work that Adams and Close are doing here. They do go big in some scenes, (including an over the top moment where Adams’ character gets high on pain pills and roller skates around the hospital, costing her her nursing job), but Adams and Close otherwise give decent performances. Close in particular has some quieter emotional moments that do feel genuine.

For the most part, this isn’t a film of subtleties. The adapted screenplay by Vanessa Taylor doesn’t really allow for much breathing room, and just sort of jumps from one big dramatic moment to the next. I do think that the story could have been structured better, and the use of flashbacks and voiceover is also somewhat cliched. Howard does an adequate job of directing the film, but it’s also far from his most cinematic or imaginative work, and he mostly just keeps out of the way as the actors do their thing.

With that said, Hillbilly Elegy isn’t a terrible movie, and the fact that it got treated online like one of the worst things ever actually speaks to a deeper problem within the discourse that causes everything to be exaggerated and blown out of proportion. While I don’t want to put fingers, I do think some of the disdain that critics have for the film comes from a general level of apathy that coastal elites feel towards those living in so-called “flyover country.” Especially since these are many of the people who voted for Donald Trump.

When Vance’s memoir was published in 2016, it actually became known as a sort of guidebook to help explain Trump’s popularity with a segment of the population, namely out of work coal miners who felt so poorly represented by the ruling class that they voted for a bullish outsider promising to bring their jobs back instead. But it’s not really fair to pin any of this on the film itself. Aside from a somewhat classically conservative message about pulling yourself up by the bootstraps, Howard mostly leaves politics out of his film, opting instead to tell an inspirational story about someone rising above their circumstances.

On these grounds, Hillbilly Elegy is fine enough, and a film that held my attention even as I recognized its shortcomings. Yes, this is Oscar Bait, and parts of it are overly cloying, but it’s also really not as bad as many people have said. Howard’s film is well-intentioned and features some well acted scenes, serving as an okay if uneven melodrama that does have some effective moments.

Hillbilly Elegy is now streaming exclusively on Netflix.

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