The poster for Ron Howard's Netflix drama Hillbilly Elegy declares that the film is “based on the inspiring true story.” I haven't read the J.D. Vance memoir it adapts, but it's hard to imagine anyone viewing the story as inspiring the way it unfolds here. To achieve that quality, a picture has to take us down into the depths, make us feel what's at stake, and then lift us up. Lots of miserable people and sad events are on display in the film. The message, however, is “There is a way out of a sucky life,” as though we haven't already heard that from dozens of other stories about drug addicts and their dysfunctional families.
Everything unfolds from J.D.'s point of view. Some scenes take place when he's a child (played by Owen Asztalos). He, his mother Bev (Amy Adams), and grandmother Mamaw (Glenn Close) move from Kentucky to Ohio, hoping for a better life via increased job opportunities. Bev brings one no-good boyfriend after another into the house, spends much of her time wasted, and, in moments, can be inexplicably cruel to her son. Tough-as-nails Mamaw works to keep the boy on the right path.
Those sequences are intercut with J.D. (Gabriel Basso) as a young law school grad hoping to get a job with a good firm. He's scheduled for interviews that could make his career when sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett) calls with bad news: Bev has overdosed and is in the hospital. J.D. has to decide whether to attend those interviews or run back home to take care of the mother who rarely took care of him. Of course, he chooses the latter, as there would be no movie otherwise.
As much as I like Ron Howard, he may have been the wrong choice to direct Hillbilly Elegy. His sensibility is too inherently sunny for the material. As a result, this is a nice, safe movie about subjects that are not nice and should never feel safe. The portrait of addiction is far less harrowing than in, for example, Requiem for a Dream, Beautiful Boy, or The Way Back. We don't get that same sense of how Bev is sucked down the drain by her substance abuse. Instead, we're at arm's length from it, seeing her struggles less as a tragedy befalling her and more as an inconvenience for her son.
The portrait of a dysfunctional family also pales in comparison to similar films, such as Ordinary People, Honey Boy, or even a horror movie like Hereditary. There's a suspicious lack of emotional resonance in Hillbilly Elegy. Vanessa Taylor's screenplay never delves too deeply into the family's wounds, lest it prevent us from feeling good. Even the heaviest of moments come equipped with an underlying vibe of “everything will work out okay” optimism. A picture like this should tear you up inside, not console you during its darkest stretches.
Two saving graces benefit Hillbilly Elegy. Amy Adams, as always, is terrific as Bev. She shoots for depth where the script gives her little. It would great to see what Adams could do with a full-on addiction drama. The other is Glenn Close. Sporting oversized glasses and a hairstyle that Mamaw seemingly achieves by sticking her finger into an electrical outlet, she's a powerhouse as the no-nonsense grandmother. Actually, it's tempting to wonder if Close is overdoing it a bit, until photos and video of the real woman appear over the end credits, at which time you realize she absolutely nailed it.
Hillbilly Elegy wants badly to make the viewer feel inspired at the conclusion. Because we never truly grasp how terrible these people have it, that doesn't happen. J.D.'s outcome is a foregone conclusion and, quite honestly, he's the least interesting character in the whole film. For all the grief in the story, it's weird what a minimal emotional reaction it generates.
out of four
Hillbilly Elegy is rated R for language throughout, drug content and some violence. The running time is 1 hour and 56 minutes.