REEL Review – Hillbilly Elegy (2020)

Director: Ron Howard | 1h 56mins | Drama

Young Yale student J.D. (Gabriel Basso) returns home to deal with his Mother (Amy Adams) who has started abusing drugs, again. During his time back he reflects on his upbringing – especially the behaviour of his Mother and his ‘Mamaw’ (Glenn Close) – and how it’s shaped the man he is today.

Ron Howard is a director that has the uncanny ability to adapt to the style of the movie he wants to make, rather than having his own distinct style he often knows how to provide a story with conservative balance and see out until the end. There’s not many Director’s who can jump onto the production of Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) and see it out until it’s end (maybe Jon Favreau has a similar talent). But it seems that Howards talents are running thin with Hillbilly Elegy, a film that needs a raw approach but instead feels like a bait attempt at emotion with an impersonal tone.

It’s not just Howard’s direction though, the whole movie feels less about the memoir of it’s central character but more focused on the self-interest. It’s a story about J.D., a Yale Law Student who reflects on his upbringing, and how his station in life was never easy but has made him the man he is today. But it’s shallow, the link between the upbringing and the modern day doesn’t show in J.D. (despite a decent performance from both Gabriel Basso and Owen Asztalos), he’s barely touched by the class difference except for a lack of knowledge of dinner table etiquette and one outburst against the Hillbilly label.

But that’s a problem for the whole film, tricking you into a false sense of depth when in reality there is nothing deeper than the surface level attraction of a melodramatic family drama.

The film opens with some narration from older J.D. talking about his rural roots in Kentucky, telling us just how much he loves his summer’s in the hillside among the country folk, but most of the movie takes place in an equally rundown Surburban Ohio. Both places don’t really build enough community to merit the nostalgia J.D. is feeling but they certainly do build the lifestyle of his family, especially his Mother Bev and his profanity spewing ‘Mamaw’, who are merely two houses down from each other, but couldn’t be further a part in relationship.

The two performances are what people will take from this, Amy Adams is erratic and broken as Bev, a single Mother who falls into the trap that her surrounding sets for her, and Glenn Close leaps at the chance at adopting the brown-stained teeth of a cutthroat elderly person with no filter. Both performances, while emphasising the reason the two actresses are so revered, feel slightly fine-tuned in order to cater to a certain Award season. But that’s a problem for the whole film, tricking you into a false sense of depth when in reality there is nothing deeper than the surface level attraction of a melodramatic family drama.

Not only is this a film that’s an attempt on the white working class, but it’s also a film of family cycles and how we find ourselves carving paths similar to those of our parents. J.D’s sister becomes nailed down to the weeded surroundings of Ohio through teenage pregnancy, just like her Mother and Grandmother – even J.D. has an outburst of uncontrollable rage very close to Bev’s instability. But there is no nuance, it’s always treated as a thread more so than a core of the movie, and the film suffers for it. The whole connection of family is tainted because the film’s lack of commitment to the themes.

If you take into account the ability and stature of it’s director, and the A-List talent of it’s cast, Hillbilly Elegy is a crippling disappointment. While there are hints of class, family and the American experience of being unable to succeed outside of your upbringing, the film is a hollow shell of all them, doing absolutely no justice to such a raw and personal story.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

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