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‘Hillbilly Elegy’ Review: Oscar bait thrown out without a hook

What exactly was the point of all this?

Glenn Close and Amy Adams in 'Hillbilly Elegy'.
(Image: © Netflix)

Our Verdict

'Hillbilly Elegy' does a solid impression of a good movie, but it never comes together.

For

  • 🤠Amy Adams and Glenn Close are giving way too much of themselves to such shallow roles.

Against

  • 🤠There is no arc to this story.
  • 🤠Both actors playing J.D. are voids of personality.
  • 🤠The film has no idea what it's about, who it's for, or why we should care.

When we pejoratively refer to films as “Oscar bait,” rarely do we mean that films aiming for Oscar glory are entirely bad. Generally, Oscar bait is mediocre or potentially even solid, but it’s clearly designed to cater to the voting interests of Academy members, usually through some intense performances that otherwise distract from the film’s faults. Hillbilly Elegy takes the principle of Oscar baiting to its most ludicrous extreme, positioning itself as a star vehicle for Amy Adams and Glenn Close that is such a meandering nothing of a movie that it hopes to trick you with pure raw emotion. And to be frank, Adams and Close are working their asses off to deliver enough tears and anger to attract a gold statue into their orbits. You just have to sit through the pointless pondering of a protagonist that never actually learns or grows from his experiences.

J.D. Vance’s memoir of the same title is not so much a narrative as a screed against his upbringing in rural Appalachia in the late 90s. In seeking to adapt to the screen, writer Vanessa Taylor and director Ron Howard have attempted to strip away the judgmental shaming of the rural impoverished to leave a story about a man who achieved the American Dream by escaping poverty through hard work. The problem with this is in the framing. When we’re introduced to J.D. (a woefully inert Gabriel Basso), he’s already an adult, interviewing for a summer internship between years of law school, and he’s pulled back to his hometown by the revelation that his mother Bev (Amy Adams) has overdosed on heroin and is without any sustainable options for assistance in recovery.

This premise would imply some kind of disconnect between J.D.’s success and his roots, a reckoning with his past that needs to happen to make himself whole. Instead, the exact opposite is true. J.D. is nostalgic for his roots, feels so alien in erudite law school dinners that he panics over which fork to use. Yet the film simultaneously tries to posit that family is the most important thing while reaffirming that they are functionally an albatross around J.D.’s neck that prevent his own shots at happiness and success. That would also be a fine conflict if the film claimed to have any insight into how J.D. needed to reconcile a desire to stay with his addict mother with the pull of his future prospects, but the film never makes that an issue, instead positioning J.D.’s obligatory look after his mother’s wellbeing as a momentary distraction from the success he’s already decided he is going to pursue.

As this non-conflict between J.D. and his cantankerous mother plays out in the present, we are treated to flashbacks that tell a story of their own, completely divorced from contemporary proceedings and that functionally only serve to catch us up to speed on how J.D. achieved a measure of success. These scenes feature a young J.D. (an equally unengaging Owen Asztalos) dealing with his emotionally and physically abusive mother, falling into adolescent depression and delinquency, and ultimately being saved by his tough-as-nails grandmother (Glenn Close), who pushes him into taking the academic chances he needs to in order to escape his family’s cycle of poverty and abuse. This approaches being compelling in its own way, even if it retains Vance’s memoir’s condescension toward his own community, but it’s undercut by what we already know of J.D.’s life in the present, and it fails to thematically tie to the present narrative in any way that justifies its existence.

The most obnoxious thing about the film is that its award-baiting is going to keep the film in the public consciousness much longer than it has any right to, as Adams and Close are putting in the work to develop rich characters in a film that doesn’t have much to say about them. Adams screams and wails through the role of a very smart woman who became corrupted by emotional abuse and was denied her dreams by a young pregnancy, while Close’s hardass persona belies a matriarch who cares about the future of her family but does not have the language or patience to express it. This is expressed with hilarious absurdity at times, as is the case with the now infamous Terminator monologue featured in the film’s trailer, but one must give credit where it’s due to actresses investing way too much of themselves into roles they are more deserving than.

Once you strip away the ambitions for awards glory, what are you left with? Is Hillbilly Elegy a character study? To be that, Vance would need to have a character arc, some development of introspection or achievement within the confines of the narrative. Is it an examination of the opioid crisis in rural America? It could be, if it opted to dive deeper than saying drug use is bad and junkies are sad. Is it a story about a grandmother’s will to save her grandson from her junkie daughter? You might be able to go that far, but then why is attention split with a framing narrative that takes place long after she’s dead? Hillbilly Elegy does a solid impression of a good movie, but it never comes together in a manner that shows thoughtfulness toward Vance’s experiences or criticism of his perspectives. In the end, it’s just a story about a guy who starts out wanting to be a lawyer, takes a trip down memory lane, then resumes his life as a law student. For all its baiting, there’s still no hook to reel you in.