‘Hillbilly Elegy’ Review
“We don’t use that word.” That is law school student JD’s reaction when someone refers to those like his family as hillbillies. He’s understandably defensive, despite his daily navigations between two distinct worlds. Oscar-winning director Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind, 2001) presents the true story of JD Vance, a young man who earns his way out of his Appalachian background to gain admittance to Yale Law School, only to get dragged back into the life he worked so hard to escape. Vanessa Taylor (Oscar-nominated for The Shape of Water, 2017) adapted the screenplay from Vance’s own memoir.
The first thing you notice about this film is that it stars Amy Adams and Glenn Close, who between them, have 13 Oscar nominations for acting. That’s a pretty distinguished pedigree for a cast. Ms. Adams was recently seen in the TV mini-series “Sharp Objects” and as Lynne Cheney in Adam McKay’s Vice (2018). Ms. Close was most recently nominated for her performance in The Wife (2018). Other notables in the cast include Haley Bennett (excellent in Swallow earlier this year), Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire), and Gabriel Basso (The Kings of Summer, 2013).
As the film begins in 1997, we find a young JD (Owen Asztalos) in a tough spot, and we quickly get a feel for the chaos commonplace around his family in Jackson, Kentucky and also the bond that comes with being a family in the hills. The obligatory family photo ends the segment. We then skip ahead 14 years as the family has 3 houses on the same street in Middletown after some of them find a way out of Jackson. In this blue-collar town hit hard by a financial downturn, they admit to missing only “hope.” The story is told from the perspective of an older JD (Basso), who struggles with the emotional turmoil that his mother Bev (Adams) constantly creates. Remarkably, it’s Mamaw (Close) who provides the strength and stability in the family, and yet, she always seems one small step from exploding at the universe. There is an odd grounded nature and tough-mindedness to Mamaw that Ms. Close radiates on screen. It’s an interesting performance, that some may call over-the-top a phrase also likely to be used for Ms. Adams as she displays the desperation of an addict, and the broken spirit of one whose shot at life disappeared early on.
For such a stereotypical “simple” family, the complexities of the story and characters are sometimes difficult to appreciate. JD’s sister Lindsay (Bennett) does her best to raise her own family while also managing her mother and grandmother, so that JD can pursue law school. She understands he has possibilities, whereas she has few. JD’s law school girlfriend Usha (Pinto) truly has no concept of his childhood and family. Class differences are on full display not just with Usha, but also at the dinner where JD (a former Marine) is maneuvering to secure a summer internship that keeps him teetering in the balance of moving forward or falling back.
It’s at this point where JD receives a call from Lindsay informing him that his mother has overdosed on heroin. It’s yet another example of his own mother inadvertently subverting his efforts to make a new life for himself. Addiction, relapse, financial struggles, family abuse, and untold secrets are the pieces that make up JD’s family pie. When his “old” life collides with his “new” life, will it drag him back down? He periodically faces a crossroads between the law and morality and, given his circumstances, it’s never as straightforward as it should be.
Without the power of Glenn Close and Amy Adams, director Howard likely would have had the film slide into the maudlin mode so common with Hallmark or Lifetime Channel movies, and while it’s not the Oscar-bait Howard aims for, Netflix has yet another watchable film in their stable. Mr. Howard’s decision to bounce back and forth between 1997 and 2011 does provide the history we need to understand JD’s dilemma, but the see-saw approach is at times distracting. Home movies provided by JD Vance are shown over the closing credits, and it’s here where we realize just how closely Ms. Close physically resembles the real Mamaw. We walk away easily seeing how the circle of this life becomes perpetual, and just how challenging it can be to break free.
Hillbilly Elegy is available on Netflix.