"Hillbilly Elegy" (2020)- Movie Review

Directed by Ron Howard
Written by Vanessa Taylor (based on book by J.D. Vance)
Starring Amy Adams, Glenn Close and Gabriel Basso

‘A Mediocre Family Melodrama’

 It is not easy to adapt a celebrated memoir on the big-screen. Due to their portrayal of real-life people, memoirs often pose obstacles for filmmakers. In order to create a successful memoir adaptation, filmmakers often have to replicate the stories, characters and underlying message of the original source material. However, at the same time, an adaptation must stand on its own rather than simply be a faithful copy of the novel. Simply put, what works on page doesn’t always work onscreen. After all, certain books are so cherished that they are better left alone. Consequently, it is rare to see effective adaptations of autobiographies.

Unfortunately, this sums up the problem with Ron Howard’s latest film “Hillbilly Elegy”. An inspiring, poignant and soulful family drama, it offers watchable entertainment. However, it pales in comparison to the superior source material. With his twenty-sixth feature, director Ron Howard has crafted a satisfactory adaptation of J.D. Vance’s autobiography. Packed with spellbinding scenery, gorgeous production values and fine performances, it is an adequate adaptation. Although “Hillbilly Elegy” is undeniably uplifting, ultimately it is not a flawless film. Its story is conventional, and lacks the compelling character development of the novel. Nonetheless, it offers heartwarming entertainment that will satisfy fans of biographical dramas.

Based on J.D. Vance’s best-selling book, “Hillbilly Elegy” traces the life of an impressionable adolescent that grows up in impoverished South America. Gabriel Basso stars in the leading role as J.D. Vance, a Yale Law student that recounts his traumatic childhood. Raised by a drug-addicted mother (Amy Adams) in a dysfunctional household, J.D. is determined to leave his past behind. However, his dreams are diminished when a family emergency forces him to return home. As J.D. rediscovers his roots, he strives to reconnect with his estranged mother.

Director Ron Howard is no stranger to biographical dramas. His 2001 Oscar-winning biopic “A Beautiful Mind” offered a fascinating look at the life of schizophrenic mathematician John Nash. “Hillbilly Elegy”, however, marks his first memoir adaptation and foray into the little-known lives of Southern hillbillies. It’s the filmmaker’s first attempt to adapt a beloved piece of autobiographical literature to the big-screen, but he pulls it off successfully. Using captivating cinematography, Howard draws viewers into the life of a tormented teenager in poverty-stricken Appalachia. From intimate close-ups to spectacular establishing shots, the cinematography keeps viewers immersed in the film’s Appalachian setting. Working alongside cinematographer Maryse Alberti, Howard creates a stunning film in which each frame captures the beauty of South America. Howard excels at immersing viewers into the world of a fractured family, and his latest feature is worth watching on Netflix for this reason alone.

If stories of dysfunctional Southern families do not attract your attention, though, there are still plenty of other reasons to see “Hillbilly Elegy”. In all fairness, the film isn’t the total fiasco that critics suggest and worth watching for its spectacular production design. The production sets, real-life locations and musical score are all carefully chosen, combining to create an immersive movie-going experience. Howard proves to be an expert at scouting the locations for his movies. Assisted by production-designer Molly Hughes, Howard chooses authentic locations that emulate the book’s Southern setting. For instance, J.D.’s gritty neighborhood plays an integral role in the movie. Whether it is J.D.’s broken-down household or the dilapidated streets, the locations successfully recreate the impoverished town of the book. Moreover, the musical score is also worth mentioning. Hans Zimmer and David Fleming’s score is highly appropriate. It gives the film a melancholic and heartwarming atmosphere. Through extraordinary production-values, Howard keeps viewers engrossed in the world of a working-class adolescent.

Despite its stunning Southern locations, however, it’s a pity that “Hillbilly Elegy” finds little time to tell an engrossing story. Vanessa Taylor’s screenplay is problematic, and struggles to create a compelling lifetime story. The film clumsily switches back and forth between two timelines: J.D.’s childhood and his present-day life. This tiresome non-linear structure keeps viewers from becoming emotionally invested in the story. Furthermore, the characters are hardly developed and defined by exaggerated stereotypes. For example, we’re barely given valid reasons to care about J.D. beyond the fact that he is impoverished and mistreated by his mother. Howard dedicates all his attention to the locales, demonstrating little regard for telling an engaging story. It’s a misconceived approach that leaves viewers fatigued rather than fully immersed in the Appalachian setting. Autobiographical dramas thrive based on the quality of their storytelling, and in this regard “Hillbilly Elegy” falls short of expectations.

Thankfully, though, the terrific performances from the cast keep this adaptation from falling apart. The film is a spectacular showcase for its leading ladies.
Amy Adams delivers one of the best performances of her career as Beverly Vance. Adams has spent most of her career playing headstrong women in period pieces (ex. 2013’s “American Hustle”). With “Hillbilly Elegy”, however, she takes on her most demanding role to date. It is not easy to get into the mindset of a drug-addicted mother that taunts her children. However, Adams pulls it off effortlessly. With heartbreaking expressions, she conveys the hopelessness, insecurities and emotional neglect of a heroin addict that struggles to nurture her children. It’s a powerful performance that proves to be a rare highlight of the movie.

Glenn Close is competent in the role of a chain-smoking grandmother with a traumatic past. Despite her unquestionable charisma, Close is slightly shortchanged in a role that does not give her enough screen-time to shine. As Mamaw, Close struggles to convey strong emotions behind immense makeup. Close excels at playing an affectionate grandmother that guides her children but is less convincing as a foul-tempered woman that insults everyone. To be fair, it isn’t entirely her fault as she isn’t given substantial material to work with. Nonetheless, it’s still an admirable performance from one of the greatest actresses working today.

The last, most unforgettable standout in the cast is Owen Asztalos. As the teenage J.D., he brings layers of humanity to an abandoned adolescent.

On a final note, it is worth mentioning that “Hillbilly Elegy” may offend specific audiences from poverty-stricken American communities. The film suffers from a misjudged conclusion that perpetuates false stereotypes about Appalachians. It’s a sentimental finale that overwhelms viewers with its poverty-overcomes-adversity message. Consequently, it isn’t entirely successful at bringing the film to a satisfying ending. Moreover, the film’s provocative themes may not please everyone. The film tackles controversial topics such as parental neglect, heroin addiction and generational trauma that may disturb some movie-goers. Due to its heavy subject matter, “Hillbilly Elegy” is one of those movies that may not appeal towards mainstream audiences.

Ultimately, for all the talent involved, “Hillbilly Elegy” is a mediocre melodrama that feels like a missed opportunity. A heartwarming but unwieldy adaptation, it proves that some memoirs aren’t meant to be made into movies. One can only hope that its failure teaches Hollywood an important lesson to tread lightly when adapting personal autobiographical stories in the future.

3/5 stars

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