Cinema Review: Hillbilly Elegy | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Hillbilly Elegy

Studio: Netflix
Directed by Ron Howard

Nov 23, 2020 Web Exclusive
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Adapted from J.D. Vance’s hit memoir of the same name, Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy is a coming-of-age story, hoping to capture the essence of growing up white and poor and with limited options in a small town in the outskirts of Appalachia.

The film alternates between two timelines. The first timeline, kicking off in 1997, centers around J.D. in his adolescent years (Owen Asztalos). He deals with his opioid-addicted mother Bev (Amy Adams) and his tough but loving grandparents (Glenn Close and Bo Hopkins), while trying to find himself in a part of the country often looked down upon and judged for its inhabitants’ lifestyles. The second timeline, 14 years later, follows J.D. as a student at Yale Law School (Gabriel Basso), forced to return home after his mother overdoses on heroin.

Alternating timelines feel out-of-place in Hillbilly Elegy. J.D.’s story is not a typical one. Even normal events such as swimming at a water hole, collecting playing cards, or getting into predictable teenage mischief always come with a twist. Trying to tell Vance’s story in a non-linear way theoretically makes sense, but when it’s playing out on-screen it is not engrossing or doesn’t add to the story. J.D.’s relationship with his mother, in particular, is such an important aspect of the film’s story. Dealing with his mother’s opioid addiction wreaks so much trauma, pain, and instability in his life, eventually shaping him up into the person he becomes. By flashing back and forth between different stages of J.D.‘s life, diving into the two’s relationship through framed memories instead of a linear storyline, it becomes much more difficult to follow, while being significantly less impactful.

Clocking in at 116 minutes, Hillbilly Elegy is not a short film. Still, by trying to cover so much ground of J.D.’s life, the film often feels too rushed. The adult J.D. plotline, although important to the story, takes nearly as much time to get through as J.D.’s childhood and adolescence, which spans many more memories and events. This is primarily an issue in the film’s second half, when J.D. is in his late teenage years, beginning to find his place and purpose in the world. An important part of J.D. ‘s story is his realization, through the help of his grandmother, that he is worth more than where he came from, and his subsequent efforts to put his all into his academic and social work. Although this is a key part in bridging the film’s two timelines, rushing this aspect of Hillbilly Elegy always makes it always seem as if an important piece of the puzzle is missing.

The film’s saving grace is its A-list supporting actors. While Basso and Asztalos performances are forgettable, the real homeruns are delivered by Adams and Close. Adams delivers an consistently harrowing and emotional performance, maintaining a resonant screen presence throughout the entire film. While Close isn’t in as much of the film as Adams, the veteran actress steals every scene she is in, often being the source of life that the film desperately needs.

Ron Howard’s adaptation of Hillbilly Elegy is Oscar-bait at its worst. With unclear messaging, a lack of clarity, and characters reduced to nothing more than the stereotypes of where they’re from, there’s simply not much to take away from Hillbilly Elegy.


Author rating: 4/10

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Average reader rating: 1/10


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