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Hillbilly Elegy (2020) - Movie Review

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Hillbilly Elegy (2020)

Based on the J.D. Vance best-selling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy is, at its essence, the simple story of a man trying to find himself amongst the clutter and distraction of family dysfunction. But on an even broader – and more important – level, it attempts to portray a family’s difficult journey through generational hardship and poverty while depicting that venture as an unforgiving byproduct of living in a certain place in our country – specifically the poverty-stricken hills of Appalachia. Unfortunately, Hillbilly Elegy does a rather poor job at both.

"For a film so hell-bent on portraying the importance of strong women, they sure do feel like a bunch of screw ups who make one poor decision after another"


The film is directed by Ron Howard (Apollo 13) working from a script by Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water) who is, in turn, adapting Vance’s memoir for the big screen. Vance’s book made quite the stir in more ways than one following its release with what many describe as a disingenuous portrayal of both his own upbringing and the region in which he was raised. Regardless, Hillbilly Elegy (the movie), which is now playing on Netflix, will undoubtedly receive its own share of criticism, but for completely different reasons.

Hillbilly Elegy follows the story of J.D. Vance (Gabriel Basso, Super 8), a former Marine and current Yale law student from rural southern Ohio whose pursuit of a dream job with a prestigious law firm is abruptly interrupted by a family crisis. As he travels back to a home he has tried to forget, J.D. must navigate the complex dynamics of his Appalachian family which includes his drug-addicted mother Bev (Amy Adams, Arrival), his rock-of-the-family grandmother Mamaw (Glenn Close, Fatal Attraction), and his older sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett, The Devil All the Time).Hillbilly Elegy (2020)

The film basically covers a 2-day period during which J.D. and his sister struggle to get their mother the help she needs. A once bright scholar and nurse, Bev has since fallen into a sad state of drug addition, bad decisions, and homelessness. To up the suspense and keep things moving along, J.D. has a life-changing interview the next morning, which is a 10-hour drive away.

In what feels like one of the many shortcuts taken to condense Vance’s story, Taylor’s script woefully neglects the greater issues at hand in this classic rags-to-riches story, instead throwing blame on an entire region and class of people. And although, via flashbacks, we visit J.D.’s rough childhood where we see the constant emotional and sometimes even physical abuse that J.D. and his sister endure from their mother, characters are shallow and often reduced to demeaning stereotypes. Sadly, it’s all surface level storytelling with flatly rendered characters that do little other than yell and scream at one another. It’s not much fun, nor is it too particularly rewarding to watch so much anger unfold on the screen. However, Mamaw loves The Terminator and has watched it over a hundred times, so she can't be that bad, right?

Vance describes his book as a story about the remarkable women in his life. And yes, his older sister was instrumental in his upbringing, was raised by a single mother who was absent most of the time, but was mostly cared for by his grandmother who, despite her numerous flaws, had the biggest impression on young J.D.

However, in the film version, Howard gets that sentiment all wrong. For a film so hell-bent on portraying the importance of strong women, they sure do feel like a bunch of screw ups who make one poor decision after another. While the performances are strong – particularly that of Close, we’re left with very little character back story and depth that a film of this magnitude deserves.

Vance’s original message of healing, hope, and the importance of family and community is sadly missing from Howard’s film, lost in a mess of weak storytelling, and poorly shaped characters. If we’re to buy what Hillbilly Elegy is selling, it’s that every once in a while, with a little bit of luck, a hillbilly can hit the big time.

2/5 stars

Hillbilly Elegy (2020)

Blu-ray

Blu-ray Details:

Home Video Distributor:
Available on Blu-ray

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Hillbilly Elegy (2020)

MPAA Rating: Unrated.
Runtime:
116 mins
Director
: Ron Howard
Writer:
Vanesss Taylor
Cast:
Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Gabriel Basso
Genre
: Drama
Tagline:
Based on the Inspiring True Story.
Memorable Movie Quote: "Everyone in this world is one of three kinds: a good terminator, a bad terminator and neutral."
Distributor:
Netflix
Official Site:
Release Date:
November 24, 2020
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date:

Synopsis: J.D. Vance (Gabriel Basso), a former Marine from southern Ohio and current Yale Law student, is on the verge of landing his dream job when a family crisis forces him to return to the home he’s tried to forget. J.D. must navigate the complex dynamics of his Appalachian family, including his volatile relationship with his mother Bev (Amy Adams), who’s struggling with addiction. Fueled by memories of his grandmother Mamaw (Glenn Close), the resilient and whip-smart woman who raised him, J.D. comes to embrace his family’s indelible imprint on his own personal journey.

Hillbilly Elegy (2020)

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