Jackson County, Kentucky is the home for Ron Howard's Hillbilly Elegy. It's a real place, a county of about 13,000 right alongside the Daniel Boone National Forest and about 100 or so miles from the similarly Appalachian town where my own father grew up and where I spent a good number of my childhood summer days.
My days were a fair bit brighter than those experienced by J.D. Vance (played by Gabriel Basso as an adult; Owen Asztalos as a teen), whose life has moved beyond those he left behind as the former Marine turned Yale Law student is on the verge of a dream job and a dream girl (Freida Pinto) when he's called back home to deal with the life he never really left behind.
You can leave home. Home never leaves you.
Hillbilly Elegy is an imperfect film based upon an imperfect but wildly popular book by J.D. Vance himself. Ron Howard isn't from these parts and you can feel his naivete in every frame of the film, a rainbow-tinged optimism and cultural blindness that keeps Hillbilly Elegy from ever having the impact it ought to have had.
These characters are caricatures, most notably Glenn Close's screechin' demon of a Mamaw with her foul-mouthed cigarette tokin' yet fiercely lovin' ways. It's awfully hard to humanize people that American culture itself has caricaturized, the Appalachian stereotype falling way short of beginning to describe the richness, depth, and remarkable nature of what it means to be hill folk.
There's little denying that Hillbilly Elegy is an "Oscar Bait" film, though that sounds a little weird in a year when most theatres have been closed for months and the film's Tomatometer rating sits at an awkwardly low 28.
There's been buzz that Glenn Close may finally snag that Academy Award after seven winless acting nominations, while Amy Adams goes guttural in her own hopes of taking home the golden statuette after six nominations.
In a year that's been as weird as 2020, I don't completely rule out nominations for both despite higher critical praise for Adam Sandler's Hubie Halloween.
If there's a fatal flaw in Hillbilly Elegy, it's that J.D. is clearly the hero of the film.
After all, he got out. He's making something of himself.
The others? Well, they're really not.
I suppose it's understandable. After all, J.D. wrote the book so he kinda deserves to be the star.
But still. There's little denying that the cinematic lens looks at least a little bit down on everyone else here. An intuitive director, and Ron Howard's a mighty fine filmmaker but in this case he's not intuitive and most likely couldn't have been, would have known to search deeper for the truth of these hill folks and their rich humanity.
In fact, it's in the opening moments of the film when we realize that J.D.'s girlfriend Usha sees it herself. She's a star catch not because she's landed herself a soon-to-be lawyer but because she sees the truth of J.D. and loves that truth.
If you've never been to an Appalachian community, it's not too far removed from what you'll see unfold here. Okay. Okay. Every family is different, but there's something about hill folk that's like a common thread a mile long. They'll fuss and fight and drink and beat the crap out of one another, but if you dare to try to call them hillbillies yourself you're gonna' have a fight on your hands.
But man, the loyalty is something fierce. It's beautiful. It's also ugly. But, it's beautiful.
It's not surprising that Hillbilly Elegy is told through J.D.'s lens. The story moves back-and-forth between the 1990's and the early 2010's, the not always seamless transitions reflecting J.D.'s turbulent teenage years and the almost perilous adult years that find him balancing burgeoning success and emotional/physical baggage unresolved. When you meet his mother, Bev (Adams), you understand the lack of resolution. Adams's Bev used to be something like J.D., a promising student with hopes of breaking out of the cyclical nature of her life until pregnancy, mental illness, and addiction made other plans. She's a nurse, believably, and you can always tell that she loves deeply even with the demons that keep catching up to her. Adams captures it all heartbreakingly, mood swings hint toward unmedicated bipolar disorder while erratic parenting leaves scar after scar after scar.
You can see in Adams's performance that she believes that Bev is what my Kentucky kin call "good people." Howard's direction doesn't quite capture that, nor does Vanessa Taylor's script. But, Adams sees it and you can feel it in her performance.
The closest thing I can think of to compare to Glenn Close's turn as Mamaw is Meryl Streep's turn in the criminally under-appreciated August: Osage County, a film that more successfully captured the rawness even if that film also had its share of problems. Close is extraordinary here, though you're going to swear she's a caricature if you've never had a grandmother like Mamaw. When you see the closing credits scrolling, you'll uncomfortably chuckle a bit.
If there's really an underrated performance here, it's that of young Owen Asztalos. You can feel Asztalos's J.D. on the verge of breaking a myriad of times, an anxiety-ridden child living an anxiety-inducing childhood. He captures that brokenness painfully and you can't help but marvel not that he got out of the hills but that he's fumbling toward getting himself out of that cycle.
Basso does fine work as well, while Freida Pinto makes more out of the role of Usha than is really there. Haley Bennett is an absolute gem as Lindsay, J.D.'s elder sister. Bo Hopkins, who's appeared in more than his share of southern fried flicks, is terrific as Papaw.
Music by David Fleming and Hans Zimmer maximizes the emotions, tugging a little too hard to find the film's emotional core. Maryse Alberti's lensing is more successful in capturing the dizzying, disorienting nature of this cyclical life from Mamaw's domestic issues to Bev's frequent encounters with local law enforcement to all of those conflicts seen through the eyes of children having to be adults.
Hillbilly Elegy isn't a perfect film. At times, it seems to look down on its characters so much that it forgets to love them. J.D. is likely the least interesting character here, though he's the hero of his own story. Far too often, Ron Howard seems to buy into the idea that you can lift yourself up and dust yourself off and off you'll go to Yale Law School and then everything will be okay. That's naive and more than a little silly.
But, there's also a sincerity here that works and it's fueled by an ensemble cast that's better than it's material. Adams, Close, Pinto, and Asztalos, in particular, find the honesty in their characters and all do memorable work here.
Hillbilly Elegy isn't most likely the kind of film you'll find yourself revisiting again and again. There's no doubt some will easily dismiss it, others will find it offensive. However, some who've lived in these hills and in these cycles there's enough truth that comes to life here that Hillbilly Elegy will be, if not something special, at least something worth watching. 2020 may very well be a weird year for Hillbilly Elegy to come out, but it may also be the perfect year for the film to come out with its willingness to speak truths, deal with crap, break cycles, and still find the light.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic