Review: Hillbilly Elegy — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

Director Ron Howard miraculously finds the humanity in emphatically irresponsible and emotionally stunted characters, thanks largely to a cast that shares his dogged determination to find flickers of warmth in the darkening embers.

Glenn Close and Amy Adams in a scene from Hillbilly Elegy
(Lacey Terrell/NETFLIX)

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Hillbilly Elegy

⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Run Time: 1 hour 56 minutes

Rating: R

Stars: Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Gabriel Basso, Haley Bennett, Bo Hopkins, Freida Pinto

Writer: Vanessa Taylor

Director: Ron Howard

In Theaters and Streaming on Netflix

We are all occasionally called upon to love unlovable people in real life, but it’s a harder sell in the movies — why endure belligerent, loudmouthed losers on screen when you can simply leave the theater (or, increasingly, turn off the TV)?

To that end, director Ron Howard has his work cut out for him in Hillbilly Elegy, a film populated with emphatically irresponsible and emotionally stunted characters, most of whom wallow in a pressure cooker of self-pity that finds release mainly in all-too-frequent violent eruptions, usually inflicted upon children.

Yet Howard, the closest thing we’ve got to a latter-day Frank Capra, miraculously finds the humanity in these smoldering husks—thanks largely to a cast that shares his dogged determination to find flickers of warmth in the darkening embers.

Based on J.D. Vance’s best-selling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy follows Vance — a Yale Law School student — as he returns to his home town of Middleton, Ohio to care for his mother (Amy Adams) after she’s nearly died from a heroin overdose. The world at large doesn’t generally associate hillbillies with the Rust Belt, but Vance is just one generation removed from life in the Appalachians, and his mother and grandparents (Glenn Close and Bo Hopkins) still adhere to the isolationist, radically conservative traditions of their old home.

As he tries to find his way in the highfalutin’ world of New England law firms, Vance is desperate to escape those deadening norms — although he’s not above hijacking a firm dinner conversation with the revelation that his great-grandfather was involved with the Hatfields and the McCoys. He’s on the eve of the most important interview of his career when his sister (Haley Bennett) calls with the news that their mother has OD’d.

The film plays out over the ensuing 48 hours as Vance — a scholarship student barely making ends meet in New Haven — jumps into his car and drives the 10 hours to Middleton on a mission to find a rehab facility that will take his destitute mother. Through a strained reunion with his sister, meet-ups with old friends, and cryptic phone calls with his girlfriend (Frieda Pinto) — with whom he has previously shared virtually none of his twisted family history — the film flashes back to scenes from Vance’s childhood: a nightmare of beatings, verbal abuse, abject poverty, and repeated lectures about how, no matter how terrible he’s been treated, “family is everything.”

Those lectures are most often expounded by Vance’s grandmother Mamaw, embodied by Glenn Close in a performance of breathtaking immersion. It is no secret that Close is among the most gifted screen actors of this or any other era, but her excavation of the stooped, craggy-faced old woman — at once a keeper of the Old Ways and also her grandson’s only channel to escape them — stands as one of her defining movie moments. As Vance’s mother, Amy Adams painfully evokes the desperation of every high school homecoming queen who dreamed of doing great things but could never escape the black hole of a culture that viewed any woman’s notions of success and ambition with squinty-eyed suspicion.

Swimming in this overload of A-List movie star wattage is Gabriel Basso as Vance, asked to do little more than stand, alternately affectionate and aghast, as the flying splinters of Vance’s old life threaten to puncture and deflate the one he is building in the world outside Middleton. Basso, whose All-American good looks and steely-eyed resolve recall a young Kurt Russell, is more than up to the task, offering a calm port in a raging storm — albeit a port with some pretty turgid undercurrents.

In the film’s numerous flashbacks, Vance is played by young Owen Asztalos, a fine young actor with a tragic gaze and the posture of insecure adolescence.

Hillbilly Elegy — in both its book and screen incarnations — has been subject to much criticism over its depiction of Middle America and, specifically, the culture of displaced Appalachian people. Vance’s choice to tell a story light on racial minorities and heavy on bootstrap-lifting self-reliance has been dismissed in some quarters as, at best, hopelessly myopic and, at worst, passively racist.

I’m no sociologist, so I don’t get to weigh in on those complaints. I do believe, though, that people should get to tell their own stories the way they lived them, and depict the world the way they understand it. Seeing people the way they see themselves is the beginning of life’s most valuable conversations; a bridge to understanding each other — and ourselves.

Featured image: Lacey Terrell/NETFLIX

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