What do you get when you combine a true life story, lousy acting, and a feeble attempt to snag some Oscar nominations? You end up with Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy, the movie adaptation of J.D. Vance’s memoir of the same name. When I first heard about the movie coming out, all I could remember about the memoir was that I was supposed to read it during the summer before my freshman year of college, and never actually bothered to do so (along with probably 90% of the other incoming freshmen). Even my father, a big fan of nonfiction, didn’t particularly enjoy the book that much. Despite already having a mediocre opinion about the book, the first round of trailers for the movie seemed promising; they showed a mother struggling to overcome drug addiction, a caring grandmother who tries to help her grandchildren, and a young boy at the center of it all, trying to make a better life for himself and his family. Sounds like the perfect formula for a good movie, right?
Wrong! While the movie trailer vowed to tell us a touching story about family values, loyalty, and the challenges of being a part of the Midwestern lower class, the film itself gave us nothing more than lots of exaggerated yelling, fighting, and bad pacing of the plot. I didn’t have high expectations to begin with, especially after seeing reviews that claimed the film was just badly made Oscar bait, but actually watching the film confirmed that it’s just overall not good. Maybe it’s worth watching just one time if you’re really into author J.D. Vance’s life story, but otherwise, you’re better off just skipping past it and watching something more interesting on Netflix.
Owen Asztalos plays a young J.D., a chubby, lonely kid who grows up in Ohio but yearns to be among “his people” back home in Kentucky (this is where the whole idea of hillbillies and Appalachian life comes in). While Asztalos tries his best to make J.D. a somewhat likeable character and earn the sympathy of the audience, sometimes it’s hard to feel sorry for him because he acts like such an asshole to everyone around him. To be fair, if my mom was a heroin addict, I probably wouldn’t be the nicest person either. The director made a pretty big mistake by having Asztalos play “young J.D.” at all ages, from being a vulnerable 8-year-old kid to a high schooler who smokes and commits vandalism with his hoodlum friends. This unchanging persona of J.D. can get pretty confusing at times, especially when the movie never clarifies what year it is or how old J.D. is supposed to be when it flip-flops between the past and present.
Gabriel Basso mirrors Asztalos’ uninspired performance as adult J.D., who is a law student at Harvard when the present day of the movie takes place. I haven’t seen any of Basso’s other works in television or film, but I have to say, his role in Hillbilly Elegy wasn’t particularly encouraging. His acting is so forced and fakey at times, it almost feels like you’re watching a badly produced high school play. When he’s not being a dick to his Indian girlfriend, Usha, he’s either lashing out at his Ivy League peers or chasing after his irresponsible and frustratingly stubborn mother. Right when he is entering the final rounds of law firm job interviews, J.D. is called back to Ohio after his mother overdoses on heroin and ends up in the hospital. After making the 10 hour drive back home, J.D. and his sister Lindsay wrestle with keeping their mother in check and figuring out a way to pay for medical bills and rehab. Basso’s acting is so exaggerated, you’ll feel like saying, ok we get it, you’re poor and you get really offended when the other white guys at Harvard call you a redneck. It’s a tough depiction to watch, for sure.
Amy Adams is, without a doubt, an incredibly successful actress who has proved her acting talent countless times. I mean, have you seen Arrival? Where’s her well-deserved Oscar for that? Unfortunately, it’s all the more confusing when her performance in Hillbilly Elegy is so… well, bad. Playing J.D.’s mother, Beverly Vance, Adams was given the role of a poor, lower class woman who has to fight between her crippling drug addiction and being a responsible mother to her children. What she gave us, in turn, screams “I’m an escaped convict from an insane asylum!” rather than “I’m trying to overcome the really difficult struggles of poverty and addiction.” Throughout the film, we see Bev devolve into manic fits numerous times, where she is perfectly happy one moment and then starts screaming and threatening to hurt her children within minutes. It’s surprising to see someone as talented as Adams use the simple method of yelling and acting crazy, in lieu of trying to add some real depth to the character. Needless to say, the portrayal of Bev makes her seem like an insane person, rather than someone living with drug addiction.
And finally, there’s Glenn Close as Bonnie “Mamaw” Vance, J.D.’s grandmother and Bev’s mother. Honestly, Mamaw’s character is the only aspect of the film that holds it all together. Close gives a much more honest and believable performance as Mamaw, who has her own issues, but also puts in a lot of effort to make sure her grandchildren can live a somewhat normal life and escape the poverty that has held both her and Bev back. Mamaw is far from your typical sweet, huggable, pie-baking American grandmother; she is tough as nails, gruff, and curses a lot. However, despite being a strict and callous person, Close’s performance also incorporates the loving and caring nature of Mamaw’s personality. You can tell that she really cares about the well-being of J.D. and Lindsay, and does everything she can to make sure they have a better future ahead. She butts heads with Bev a lot, often accusing her of being a bad mother and telling her she needs to get her shit together. Mamaw gives us a glimpse of how great Hillbilly Elegy could have been, had it not been marred by the bad acting of others.
While Hillbilly Elegy is definitely not the most garbage movie I have ever seen, it fell short on a lot of different promises. It’s certainly deceiving in the way the trailer makes it seem like an Oscar-worthy film, when it’s actually very mediocre and at times painful to watch. Again, while I never actually read the book, the film feels unfair to the real J.D. and his real life story. It makes you wonder if he and his family are happy with the way they are shown on the big screen, because to me, it feels like Ron Howard did them dirty by portraying them as pathetic, simple-minded Midwesterners. Maybe if they’re lucky, a much better remake will come out in a few decades.