Oscar catnip, at least on paper, Hillbilly Elegy has all the makings of an awards season juggernaut. It has Ron Howard in the director’s chair, himself an Academy Award winner. It’s distributed by Netflix, fast becoming the distributor most eager to tickle the Academy’s fancy. Oh, and let’s not forget that it stars Amy Adams and Glenn Close, two of the most overdue actresses for Oscars. Unfortunately, despite Adams and Close pulling their weight, as well as promising work from newcomer Owen Asztalos, this melodrama traffics in material we’ve too often seen before. With such a middling central premise, it falls upon the cast to elevate things. They certainly do that, but not quite to the level that the film warrants a recommendation.
Hillbilly Elegy actually may be hitting at the wrong time, too, as author J.D. Vance presents a potentially controversial central figure with his conservative leanings. It shouldn’t matter, and may not, but it’s an added hump for some to get over here. The movie clearly wants to appeal to both sides of the political divide by being a simple human story, but this complicates matters a bit.
Netflix works wonders with their films, so Hillbilly Elegy is in good hands there, it just likely needed better creative hands. Howard and writer Vanessa Taylor never put a stamp on this story. They just tell it. That could work with a stronger central story, but Vance’s memoir doesn’t quite present that. So, Howard and Taylor needed to add more, but they’re unable or unwilling to, leading to a missed opportunity.
Based on Vance’s book, the film is a look at three generations of an Appalachian family, seen through the eyes of J.D. (Asztalos), its youngest member. Living with his mother Bev (Adams) and sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett), he’s much closer with his hard-nosed grandmother Mamaw (Close). Part of it is due to Bev’s volatile nature, born of drug addiction and a failure to make good on her promise in life. Mamaw is determined to make sure J.D. doesn’t fall into that hole, even when war between all members of the family continues to break out. For J.D., his childhood would not be considered a calm or happy one, but it’s a common one for all too many Americans in the heartland.
Years later, J.D. is now a Yale Law student (played by Gabriel Basso), hoping to put his past behind him. Hoping for a prestigious internship, he spends more time with his girlfriend Usha (Freida Pinto) than he does thinking about his family. Then, Lindsay calls to say that Bev is using again. Returning home, J.D. finds his mother in rough shape. Forced to grapple with his family’s past, he confronts Bev, hoping to finally resolve some of their differences. But, is Bev and her drug use beyond redemption? Moreover, has J.D. put his past truly in the past?
Amy Adams and Glenn Close do undeniably good work here, though that’s to be expected. They get all of the best moments, while Haley Bennett and Freida Pinto are completely wasted. Then, there’s Owen Asztalos and Gabriel Basso. The former is more successful playing our protagonist, but the latter is stuck with such a bland character that he can only do so much. Basso never brings out why we should care about J.D. in the slightest. Asztalos, however, has an ability to generate empathy that’s greatly lacking elsewhere. Arguably, his performance is the most impressive, since he makes us give as close to a damn about the characters as we possibly can, given the material.
Ron Howard mistakes a bit of grit for really understanding his characters. Sure, the cinematography from Maryse Alberti gets up close and personal, but it’s almost all still surface level. That fault resides at the foot of Vanessa Taylor to a large degree, but Howard still never executes things in a memorable way. The same goes for the score from David Fleming and Hans Zimmer, which is competent but thoroughly unspectacular.
In terms of awards, Hillbilly Elegy is largely just a push for Amy Adams and Glenn Close to finally win their Oscars. Adams in Best Actress and Close in Best Supporting Actress are potential Academy Award nominees, with the latter benefiting from a thin category. Beyond that? It’s probably wishful thinking, give or take a surprise Best Makeup & Hairstyling citation.
Hillbilly Elegy is largely fine. Sadly, that’s not nearly what everyone involved was going for. As such, it’s a disappointment and a bit of a letdown. While Adams and Close will get to be in the Oscar race again, it may be a stretch to see either win. Plus, it’s not hard to make the case that Asztalos is more deserving, despite being a longer shot for the Academy bestow a citation upon. Time will tell there, but anyone looking for a decent drama can do worse than this. Alas, you can do much better, as well.