Netflix film “Hillbilly Elegy”, which was released on Netflix on this Tuesday after being released in theaters a few weeks ago, is so mild and bland that you may feel sorry for its several main cast members whose efforts are mostly wasted here in this insipid piece of work. While it surely intends to present some vivid slices of life from the poor Caucasian working class people of the Appalachian area, the movie is utterly deficient and problematic in terms of storytelling and characterization, and I only found my interest dwindling second by second as observing more of its many artificial aspects without much care or attention.
The movie, which is based on the acclaimed memoir of the same name by J.D. Vance, is mainly about how Vance grew up during those hard and difficult childhood years with his Appalachian family in Ohio. During the opening scene, we see young Vance, played by Owen Asztalos, spending the last day of a family meeting held in some rural area of Kentucky, and the narration from older Vance, played by Gabriel Basso, tells us a bit about the long history of his grandparents. They left the area not long after his grandmother got pregnant, but they have never forgotten their origin nonetheless, and that is probably the main reason why young Vance has felt like being connected with the area, even though he is still an outsider as reflected by a brief scene where he is cruelly bullied by several local kids.
When young Vance later returns to Ohio along with his close family members, we come to see how problematic his family has been for many years. While his grandmother Mamaw (Glenn Close) divorced and has lived separately from her husband since that, his mother Bev (Amy Adams), who was once quite promising during her high school years as she often emphasizes, has struggled with not only her poor economic status but also a lifelong addiction problem, and his older sister Lindsay (Haley Bennet, who looks quite mundane compared to her unnerving breakthrough turn in “Swallow” (2019)) certainly does not want to end up being just like her mother, though she has already been bound to be stuck in their neighborhood for the rest of her life.
Although things are not always bad for him, young Vance frequently finds himself in situations where he has to endure her mother’s worst sides fueled by her downward spiral into the bottom of addiction, and there is a painful scene where their initially cheerful moment is suddenly turned into a very disturbing circumstance, which eventually leads to his mother being temporarily arrested by the local police. Because he still cares about his mother, he decides to give another chance to her, but, like many other addicts, she soon lets down him as well as her other close family members, and that breaks his heart again.
We later get some understanding of Bev’s personal demons originated from her deeply unhappy childhood associated with her parents’ toxic and violent relationship, but the movie does not delve that deep into her struggle, torment, and guilt without any insight or empathy, and she only comes to us as nothing but a wretched bundle of clichéd behaviors we can expect from addict characters. While Amy Adams did a good job of immersing herself into one of the most unlikable roles in her admirable acting career, the movie sadly does not provide her any genuine human depth to be expressed and conveyed to us, and she only gets stuck in her shrill caricature role in the end.
On the opposite, Glenn Close is a bit better as a fragile but tough old lady with no-nonsense attitude. Discerning that her dear grandson deserves a chance for better life, Mawmaw forcefully takes young Vance away from his increasingly irresponsible mother, and she surely imbues some disciplines into her grandson as they start to live together in her residence. Although she is saddled with several blatantly sentimental moments in the film, Close lifts up these badly written scenes via her sheer talent and presence in addition to being the best thing in the movie, and that reminds us again of what a wonderful actress she has always been since she burst into the screen with her Oscar-nominated supporting turn in “The World According to Garp” (1982).
Thanks to his grandmother’s support and correction, Vance eventually becomes a promising Yale Law School student around 20 years later, but then his family remains to be a big problem in his life. After notified that his mother has just hit another bottom of addiction again, he has no choice but to go back to his hometown even though he may soon have an important job interview offered by some prestigious law firm, and he surely feels conflicted more and more as also coming to see that there is really nothing he can do for his mother.
The screenplay by Vanessa Taylor attempts to generate some dramatic contrast as alternating between Vance’s past and present, but, though Asztalos and Basso are flawlessly connected with each other in their acting, Vance is not a particularly interesting figure to observe while merely functioning as a blank backdrop for other characters. In addition, the subplot involved with his Indian American girlfriend is quite redundant to say the least, and Freida Pinto is unfortunately tasked with literally phoning in her performance throughout the film.
On the whole, “Hillbilly Elegy” is not as bad as I feared after encountering many negative reactions from critics, but this is inarguably one of the lowest points in the filmmaking career of director Ron Howard. Yes, he has been rather underwhelming these days, but let’s not forget that he is a competent Hollywood filmmaker who made a number of far better films such as “Apollo 13” (1995) and “A Beautiful Mind” (2001), and I recommend you to watch them instead of this regrettable misfire.