It might have seemed like a pipe dream a decade ago, but the truth is that Netflix is now one of the biggest contenders when it comes to showpiece film awards at the end of every cinematic year. From Roma to The Irishman to Marriage Story and more, Netflix has firmly established itself as a serious producer of awards worthy pictures, and Hillbilly Elegy was very much targeted as one of their prize peaches in this COVID ridden year in film.
Well. What can I say? They’ve really dropped the ball with this one. Based on the popular but controversial 2016 memoir by J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy tells the story of J.D. (Gabriel Basso), a promising Yale law student who is forced to return to his impoverished Ohio hometown when his mother (Amy Adams) overdoses on heroin. The film operates as a series of interweaving flashback and present day sequences, revealing J.D.’s formative years with his problematic mother and the influence of his grandmother (Glenn Close).
Amy Adam, Glenn Close, multi generational family melodrama. Anyone familiar with my preferences for stellar actresses and gritty story telling would have been forgiven for thinking that Hillbilly Elegy would be right up my street, and for the first ten minutes or so I thought it would be too. Then the film actually started to happen. I don’t quite know how they have managed it, but Hillbilly Elegy does entirely too much whilst simulteaneasouly doing next to nothing at all. Allow me to explain!
This is a film packed with huge themes. Addiction, abuse, poverty, the American Dream, nature versus nurture. These are themes that I personally love in a narrative, but the problem here is that they are all addressed in such an unnuanced, turned up to eleven way that it is really hard to take any of it seriously. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the screenwriting here is absolutely terrible, filled with the most cliched lines and awkward monologues that I’ve witnessed all year.
You’ll see a lot of this kind of talk going around, but it’s absolutely justified. Hillbilly Elegy is ‘Oscar bait’ of the highest order, and bad Oscar bait at that. It looks, and most detrimentally, *feels* like a movie that is grabbing for awards rather than organically deserving them. The characters on the page may have seemed like juicy roles to play, but the reality of the atrocious script means that everything verges on parody rather than gritty realism. It’s memorable, for but for the wrong reasons.
The whole ‘Oscar baiting’ vibe is painfully heightened by the fact that Amy Adams and Glenn Close are the big players in the movie. Notoriously two actresses who have yet to pick up a statuette despite 13 combined Academy Award nominations, you can’t help but watch this film and see it through the lens of performers who thought they could use the material as a straight up campaign vehicle.
Unfortunately, neither Adams nor Close produce anything resembling their best work here. As J.D.’s mother Bev, Amy Adams never manages to mine any nuance from the material that she is given, not all her fault to be fair. I never believed her performance as a drug addict, or as someone who is mentally unstable, which honestly came as a surprise because I genuinely believe Amy Adams to be one of the best actresses of her generation. For various reasons, this just wasn’t her best.
I find myself feeling slightly kinder towards Glenn Close as J.D.’s ‘Mamaw’, a ferocious matriarch who exemplifies the tough love attitude that is assigned to so many tough living Appalachian elders in cinema. Close indulges in a full transformation from her real life glamorous persona, creating a character that, whilst being the spitting image of the real life Mamaw if the credits are anything to go by, still doesn’t quite feel entirely real in this universe. This kind of supporting role is the classic opportunity that a senior actress takes to swoop in for an Oscar (think Allison Janney in I, Tonya or Melissa Leo in The Fighter), but the problem is that despite her visual transformation, you never truly get away from the sensation of knowing that you are watching Glenn Close acting in front of a film camera.
You’ll notice that I haven’t said anything about J.D. Vance as a character, and that is because even as the supposed protagonist of the story, he makes little impact and provides very little enjoyment. Both Gabriel Basso as adult J.D. and Owen Asztalos as young J.D. fail to make any kind of impression, with Basso in particular completely lacking in leading man charisma.
Overall, what I’ve realised is that when I was fifteen, Hillbilly Elegy would have probably been one of my favourites of any given year. As a teenager all I wanted was big, bombastic performances from actresses that I loved, playing juicy parts with lots of drama. The film certainly delivers on that, but what my fifteen year old self didn’t care about that my thirty year old self definitely does is nuance and authenticity. This is a melodrama that doesn’t feel organic or ‘lived in’ in any way, which is frankly baffling considering it is based on a memoir. Bad writing, try hard acting, unlikable characters making unlikeable decisions. This is a classic case of a big swing and an ever bigger miss.