REVIEW: ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ is a mess of misery and melodrama

The difficulties and hardships of poverty have no doubt been explored in some great movies.

Unfortunately, “Hillbilly Elegy” doesn’t join that club.

The movie is based on a memoir by J.D. Vance, an American businessman who grew up in Ohio. In the film, Vance (Gabriel Basso) is a student at Yale University who’s looking to get hired by a law firm.

However, during the night of a big social dinner, Vance gets a call that his mother, Bev (Amy Adams) has overdosed on heroin. As a result, Vance drives back to the town he grew up in and in doing so, thinks back to his youth where he lived with both his mother and his grandmother, affectionately known as Mamaw (Glenn Close).

“Elegy” is a film that seems like it’s always treading in waters of misery. The film is overly repetitive in its approach to storytelling. The film will feature college-age Vance dealing with an issue in the present, and then a flashback to where his mother does something to create a problem, resulting in Mamaw having to come in and help settle things.

This basically repeats over and over again until the film’s conclusion. Despite all of the adversity of Vance’s life showcased from start to finish, though, “Elegy” barely packs any sort of punch.

It’s inspiring, sure, that this individual was able to work his way to success out of a difficult situation, but the portrayal of said situation feels all too shallow. Noticeably, the film fails to address the circumstances that caused Vance’s difficulties in life.

The movie takes place in Ohio, an area that’s part of the industrial Midwest. However, there are few mentions of the lack of opportunity because of the decline in manufacturing because of outsourcing and automation. Even some of the commentary about drug abuse and the lack of care for those with substance issues seems to lack a strong conviction.

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Courtesy Netflix and Imagine Entertainment.

Much of this stems from the film’s unsatisfactory script. The shallowness shows up early on with this one. Mainly in the moment where Vance attends the fancy Yale dinner.

During the sequence,Vance stands up to smarmy rich people and defends small town America, while also worrying which fork to use at the elegant dinner. It’s a scene absolutely lacking in depth, which is a problem when exploring a multi-faceted subject like class divisions.

This is the status of the screenplay for the whole film. Stories about poverty and struggles to overcome them are nothing new to cinema, and there have been plenty of strong ones. Even in the last decade, films like “If Beale Street Could Talk,” “Hell or High Water” and “Parasite” have all done a great job in capturing the topic.

The same can be said for films where a person comes of age, such as “Boyhood” and “Moonlight.” The main difference from those films and “Elegy” is mainly with the script. The writing for this Netflix movie is packed with melodramatic moments and by-the-books dialogue rather than authentic displays of rust belt life.

Director Ron Howard has more than 20 feature film credits to his name and his latest movie is pretty much what one would expect. Howard is a conventional, but competent filmmaker. As a result, this picture looks polished and clearly had a steady hand, yet lacks an auteur identity.

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What jumps out the most from the promotional material for “Elegy” is that the film is headlined by Oscar nominees Amy Adams and Glenn Close. Experienced performers, both actresses put a lot of energy into their roles, but to varying degrees of success.

The character Bev is often over dramatized and as a result, Adams gives a less than subtle performance. Her work in, say, 2010’s “The Fighter,” was more convincing than what she does in this. However, this was based on a true story so the work may have been accurate. Regardless, while Adams lays it on a bit thick here, she does elevate the role.

The same can be said for Close, who’s in a similar situation. Mamaw is the wise, tough as nails grandma character that most audiences should be accustomed to. Although a bit generic, Close gives the role a certain charm that greatly benefits the overall movie.

Basso, who is starring in his biggest role since 2011’s “Super 8,” does serviceable work here. He’s fine in the more emotional scenes and brings passion to the performance.

Yet his character in the end remains muddled, as he feels the need to stand up for Appalachian country, but has no interest in staying in small town U.S.A. An arc is missing for Vance in this feature.

Themes of job loss related to industry and rising substance abuse is something I can appreciate having grown up in a small, Midwestern town. Sadly, “Elegy” fumbles in providing anything meaningful to say in the matters and instead delivers a glossy feel good film that’s not really all too good.

It has adequate direction and a capable cast which salvage it, but just somewhat. 2 out of 5.

Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

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