Hillbilly Elegy is a 2020 American drama film directed by Ron Howard, from a screenplay by Vanessa Taylor, based on the 2016 memoir of the same name by J. D. Vance. The film stars Glenn Close, Amy Adams, and Gabriel Basso, and follows a college student who must return to his family in Ohio after a family emergency. It was released on Netflix on November 11, 2020.
The film opens in Jackson, Kentucky, in 1997. J.D. is looking back to this time, his teenage years. He is visiting his family with his grandparents and his mother Bev. They go back home to Ohio. Fourteen years later, J.D. is attending Yale and working three jobs. He is dating a young woman, Usha. She has a summer internship in Washington D.C. and J.D. hopes to get one there as well. He attends an event to network in hopes of landing the internship. He gets a call from his sister, Lindsay because his mom is in the hospital after overdosing on heroin. Lindsay is overwhelmed by the situation as she works and has three children. She asks J.D. to come home, which he feels conflicted about as it is interview week at Yale.
He remembers growing up and conflicts he had with his mom, who is mentally and emotionally unstable. He was a fan of Joe Montana and collected his cards. As they are driving, his mom tells him she wants to move them in with her boyfriend. Bev starts driving like she wants to get in a wreck and then beats J.D. He runs out of the car to a house and calls the police who come and arrest Bev. Retuning to 2011, J.D. starts to drive to Ohio. In 1997, his grandparents come to pick him up as J.D. lies to the police about his mom hitting him and they let her go. In 2011, he arrives at the hospital as his mom is yelling at the nurse. She will be discharged because she has no health insurance. J.D. is called and offered an interview for the following morning.
Back in 1997, his grandfather dies and the family has a funeral. Bev works as a nurse and steals drugs. She gets high, acts erratic, gets fired, and later breaks down over her father's death. In 2011, J.D. and Lindsey find Bev a bed at a drug rehabilitation facility and J.D. remembers how it's never worked for her in the past. J.D. pays for her rehab, but Bev ultimately refuses to be admitted. In 1997, J.D., Lindsey, and Bev move into her boss's and new husband, Ken's house. Bev won't quit taking drugs. J.D.'s grandmother falls and is hospitalized with pneumonia. He starts vandalizing and acting out with his new step-brother, Travis and his friends. They wreck a car. In 2011, Bev's boyfriend throws her stuff out of his apartment. In 1997 J.D.'s grandmother takes him to live with her and helps him to avoid trouble and succeed in school.
Why It Sucks
- The biggest problem is that it relies too much on stereotypes of the poor and exploiting their stories to gain sympathy, which the book it's based on did not do.
- It is a very loose adaptation of the true story of J.D. Vance's book, with a lot of scenes being exaggerated for the sake of drama by Ron Howard. The exaggerations were later what caused J.D. Vance to exit from his own project and leave the film in development hell for a while.
- Lazy writing that emphasizes exposition and narration over any real dialogue. The opening is particularly weak because of this over-reliance on narration.
- Instead of following one specific linear plot like Vance's memoir did, the film jumps through time constantly and leaves many things unexplained.
- The film has an over-reliance on camera cuts as well, with rather schizophrenic editing at play throughout the film.
- The film's themes of family struggles and the urban-rural disconnect are barely communicated throughout, and Howard and his team are relying too much on stereotypes than any actual character development.
- Poor usage of music, which sounds rather comical and out-of-place in serious moments. It's like Jason Segel's character in Forgetting Sarah Marshall did the score here.
- Some parts of the plot that seem interesting, like the sources of Bev's drug addiction, are given no importance whatsoever despite their possible contributions to the film's message.
- Unlikable characters except for J.D.: Meemaw is rather annoying half the time, and Bev was an abusive mother and a drug addict who gets an unnecessary and unrealistic redemption arc.
- Good acting from Gabriel Basso, Amy Adams, and especially Glenn Close. The three all have wonderful chemistry together.
- J.D. is a relatable and likable character, with the real J.D. Vance even stating that he enjoyed Basso's performance.
- Good costume and hair/makeup design, especially with the prosthetics done on Glenn Close.
Critical response to Hillbilly Elegy was "fairly negative", but the performances of its cast received some praise. On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, 26% of 245 critics gave the film a positive review, with an average rating of 4.60/10. The website's critics consensus reads, "With the form of an awards-season hopeful but the soul of a bland melodrama, Hillbilly Elegy strands some very fine actors in the not-so-deep South." According to Metacritic, which calculated a weighted average score of 38 out of 100 based on 43 critics, the film received "generally unfavorable reviews." The Independent reported that the film was widely criticized for "perpetuating stereotypes about the poor". Katie Rife of the The A.V. Club called it a "bootstrapping poverty porn" and said that it "reinforces the stereotypes it's meant to be illuminating." Glenn Close became the third performer in history to be nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Raspberry Award for the same performance, the others are James Coco in Only When I Laugh and Amy Irving in Yentl.