I don’t care if you identify as a Conservative, Liberal, or somewhere in between, “Hillbilly Elegy” is an objectively awful movie. I enjoyed very little about this film, based on the book by J.D. Vance. Director Ron Howard, who isn’t the most talented guy behind the camera to begin with, strips all of the most interesting parts of the source material in this lousy melodrama about a pill-popping, abuse-riddled, dysfunctional Southern family.
Yale law student J.D. (Gabriel Basso) gets an urgent call from his family, prompting him to travel back to his Appalachian hometown. While forced back into a world he’d rather forget, J.D. reflects on three generations of family history. The film jumps back and forth to different time periods of the man’s life, attempting to offer an explanation of why he turned out the way he did.
The film has been (rightfully) criticized that it plays like a rich person’s idea of what a poor family must be like. Watching it makes you feel slightly ashamed because Howard amps up the liberal guilt. There’s J.D.’s mom Bev (Amy Adamss), a former nurse who is now a junkie, and grandma Mamaw (Glenn Close), a chain-smoking, sass-talking matron of the messed up family.
Stories of past abuse become excuses for their abysmal paths in life. Mamaw gets tired of getting knocked around by Papaw (Bo Hopkins), so she “lights his ass on fire.” As a teen, J.D. is in the car with his mentally unstable mom when she threatens to crash her car and kill them both. There are countless other scenarios that had me asking, “do people really live like this?” For what it’s worth, I grew up in a very small, very rural area in the South, and nothing about this film feels authentic to me.
This overacted soap opera thrives on hysterics, including over-the-top performances from Adams and Close. Basso is as dull as a bag of rocks, and I found it difficult to root for him at all.
“Hillbilly Elegy” is supposed to be an uplifting story about how generational trauma isn’t an excuse to ruin your life, and how a person can triumph over obstacles if they hunker down, rise above the noise, and decide to make something out of nothing when they’re dealt a bad hand in life. Instead, it rings hollow and doesn’t come across as a barrier-shattering success story, but plays more like an episode of “Jerry Springer.” Feeding into stereotypes like that is a disservice to us all.