Hillbilly Elegy (2020) Review

In what could have been a prestige picture that would put this Netflix’s Hillbilly Elegy one of the Oscar frontrunners, Ron Howard’s latest movie — his first feature since the underwhelming Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) — is nothing more than a typical Oscar bait-type melodrama.

Based on J.D. Vance’s 2016 memoir of the same name, Hillbilly Elegy follows Yale law student J.D. Vance (Gabriel Basso), who’s looking to score a summer internship, received an emergency call from his sister (Haley Bennett’s Lindsay) after their mother Bev (Amy Adams) suffered from a heroin overdose.

Although reluctant at first, J.D. travels back to his Appalachian hometown to help his troubled mother. From there, the movie goes back and forth between the past and the present, with the former focused on his turbulent childhood (Owen Asztalos plays the younger version). We learn how he has to cope with his volatile mother and her drug addiction as well as living with his strict grandmother Mamaw (Glenn Close) at one point.

Ron Howard is no stranger to making movies based on true stories, with memorable ones such as Apollo 13 (1995), Cinderella Man (2005) and Rush (2013). But despite returning to his familiar territory where he knows the best, Howard’s direction feels as if he rather choose to play safe and conventional, complete with all the usual melodramatic routes typically seen in this kind of movie.

(L-R) Haley Bennett, Gabriel Basso and Amy Adams in Netflix's "Hillbilly Elegy" (2020)

Since Hillbilly Elegy is primarily about J.D.’s emotional hardship and struggle, the movie covers all the bare essentials, namely domestic violence as well as substance abuse and childhood trauma. Even the characters are largely reduced to stereotypes and the movie doesn’t bother much to delve deep into their psyches. In other words, everything here is as clichéd and superficial as possible.

Frankly, it’s a wasted opportunity, given the fact Howard manages to assemble a potentially solid cast led by not one but two multiple Oscar nominees Amy Adams and Glenn Close. It’s not that the two of them are miscast in their respective roles. But no matter how committed their performances are, both of the surface-level storytelling and character development fail to give them ample rooms to shine further. The same also goes with the rest of the cast including Gabriel Basso and Owen Asztalos as the adult and younger J.D. Vance, Haley Bennett as J.D.’s sister and Freida Pinto as J.D.’s girlfriend Usha.

Vanessa Taylor, best known for co-writing alongside Guillermo del Toro in The Shape of Water (2017), prefers a more formulaic approach in adapting J.D. Vance’s memoir. The story just goes through the motion throughout its nearly 2-hour length, which at times feel like I’m watching a made-for-TV melodrama. If it wasn’t for the well-acted ensemble, Hillbilly Elegy would be a total train wreck of a movie.

Hillbilly Elegy is currently streaming on Netflix from November 24 onwards.

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