Hillbilly Elegy

At the Movies Blog

Two great actresses — Glenn Close and Amy Adams.

Netflix supposedly paid close to $50 million to adapt the J.D. Vance memoir from 2016, and according to some critics, director Ron Howard left some of the conservative political slant of his story out. Screenwriter Vanessa Taylor didn’t have the part of Vance’s book where he rants about welfare recipients buying alcohol and smokes, among other things. 

There will be critics shouting that this is merely Oscar bait. Well, it would be, if it had better screenwriting and direction; because Glenn Close and Amy Adams are great in their roles. My problem is the weak sentimentality, lack of nuance, and repetitive flashbacks that never show the good times about the boy’s childhood.

Bev Vance (Amy Adams) plays J.D.’s mom. She did well in high school, but because of a pregnancy, she went from the possibility of becoming a doctor to being a nurse. And once her addiction to the meds the hospital has (as well as smack), she loses that job. She’s abusive. In one scene, mom’s beating a young J.D. (Owen Asztalos), who runs to a house and the cops are called. I couldn’t figure out why J.D.’s sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett), keeps trying to get her brother to help their mom out when he’s on the verge of being a successful lawyer (finishing up at Yale). 

Glenn Close is solid as “Mawmaw,” but the dialogue she’s given is so bad, it ruins what would have been a performance to garner attention around awards season. In one scene meant to be inspirational to young J.D., she’s watching The Terminator on TV, and explains how people are all like terminators. It might be the worst piece of dialogue on screen all year.

Both versions of J.D. were annoying. The younger one, looked like he had a disability of some kind. The older version (played by Gabriel Basso), seemed wimpy and weird in a way that wasn’t believable. We’re really supposed to buy the fact that, at a fancy dinner with people he needs to impress…he’s so freaked out by the number of forks and spoons on the table, he excuses himself and calls his girlfriend (Freida Pinto) to ask what to do. And even if he did that in real life, it doesn’t play well on screen. He’s supposed to have a career in law, yet he can’t even grab a glass of wine off a tray, because he’s not sure which is which or how it will make him look to a guy he’s trying to get an internship with.

The dual timelines, which are done so often in films now, would have worked well enough. If it was a better script and a better variety of flashbacks. They never did enough to help me learn, or care more about, J.D. I so wish I could have been with Ron Howard watching the dailies while this was being made. I’d grab him and say, “We get it, dude! The kid had a bad childhood! Give me some humanity and more character development!”

I’m guessing the hillbilly stereotypes of the Appalachian region won’t play well with some. 

Hans Zimmmer and David Fleming provide a score with plenty of violins to work on your tear ducts. 

The whole thing feels toothless (no pun intended). It’s a Southern soap opera that quickly becomes poverty porn. If it were the late ‘80s, this would pair nicely on a double-feature bill with Steel Magnolias. 

1 star out of 5.

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