A Yale Law student named J.D. Vance (Gabriel Basso, Owen Asztalos) drawn back to his Appalachian hometown reflects on his family’s history and his own future.
At the end of each and every year, we get the inevitable Oscar-bait movie that tries to be so grandiose and compelling and tries to swoop into awards consideration at the very last minute, and more often than not, it fails at snagging any sort of nomination at any awards ceremony.
We get at least a handful every year, and it seems as though Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy is 2020’s Oscar-bait movie. Surprisingly, we haven’t gotten any other film that fits into this category yet, but I’m sure that is subject to change soon, despite the fact that this year has been incredibly different for movie releases due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Hillbilly Elegy makes a huge effort to be relatable and brilliant interweave the past with the present, and while this whole picture is a commendable effort, it didn’t work all the way through. To be honest, though, this film isn’t awful or anything like that. It’s just a missed opportunity. There are definitely some aspects here to appreciate, namely the character development and the family dynamic.
J.D. Vance is a genuinely interesting and easy character to follow. Watching his life as a young child growing up was heartbreaking and once you see that he is quickly heading down a dark path, you start to feel extreme sympathy for him. Both Gabriel Basso and Owen Asztalos did terrific jobs in the adult and child counterparts of the character respectively. J.D. just wants to live a normal and peaceful life with the ones he loves, but the problem is that the ones he loves are not the nicest people to him.
His mother Beverly (Amy Adams) isn’t best suited for motherhood and his grandmother Bonnie (Glenn Close) isn’t too good either. But, they’re all that he has. Growing up as a child with these people would be difficult for anybody, and Hillbilly Elegy does a decent job at portraying the struggles of a young kid trying to pave his own way in life.
Where this movie starts to falter is in its screenplay, unfortunately. A lot of Hillbilly Elegy feels extremely drawn out and overly long for no reason other than to pad the running time. This could have easily been a solid ninety-minute story, but instead, we spend too much time with characters that don’t have any more room for development. It also doesn’t help that the film leans heavily into annoying and maddening stereotypes that will make you shake your head. These stereotypes continue throughout the entire movie, so it’s not something that you can just brush off as a one-off moment either.
Amy Adams is honestly the brightest spot in Hillbilly Elegy, and honestly when isn’t she the best aspect of any film she’s in? She has been acting for decades now and has yet to win an Academy Award, and I genuinely hope her day is coming soon. Her performance here as Beverly Vance is raw and invigorating. She completely disappeared into her role, as did Glenn Close as Bonnie. I’m hoping that we see a nomination for both actresses at the Academy Awards next year, but I’m not placing any bets on it.
Hillbilly Elegy is a frustrating movie to have to watch. There are some moments sprinkled throughout that are honestly great, but there are also plenty of moments to get annoyed with and it’s clearly a film that could have been written a whole lot better than it was. It’s not the worst movie of the year, far from it, but it’s not a standout picture in the midst of the great offerings this year brought us.
Overall Grade: C
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, drug content, and some violence
Directed by: Ron Howard
Distributed by: Netflix
Release Date: November 11, 2020
Running Time: 115 minutes