PLOT: A struggling law student (Gabriel Basso) returns to the disenfranchised Appalachian community he was born into when his mother (Amy Adams) overdoses.
REVIEW: Whatever you think of the outspoken J.D. Vance, his book, “HILLBILLY ELEGY” is an essential read. A deeply personal examination of the socio-economic problems that affect his Appalachian community, it always seemed inevitable that Hollywood would eventually turn it into a film. Too bad Ron Howard’s well-intentioned but tone-deaf film doesn’t do the story it tells or the community it depicts justice.
Many have pre-emptively reviewed the film based on the trailers, but the fact is as a film HILLBILLY ELEGY isn’t awful. Howard is a solid craftsman, but the issue is that all of the rough edges that made Vance’s book such an essential read have been sanded away in favor of making this a typical Hollywood biopic. While the book dug into Vance’s upbringing, the most absorbing parts were the anthropological sections that dug into the concept of “social rot” as his community slowly fell apart in the wake of massive economic depression. All of the hardest to take elements of the book, including the depiction of “mountain dew mouth”, and most significantly the region’s political shift, and left out here.
Instead, we get a familiar tale of Gabriel Basso’s Vance overcoming adversity to put himself through law school and move up the social ladder. Howard has no feel for the material, made most evident by casting Amy Adams and Glenn Close in the lead roles, as Vance’s opioid-addict mother and his tough but loving grandmother. Both are “playing down” and hidden behind lots of makeup, unflattering hairstyles, and affected accents. They play caricatures, not real people. The performances feel external rather than internal.
I doubt either of them is really to blame but Adams, in particular, is way over the top, bordering on chewing scenery as Vance’s drugged-up mom. Howard’s depiction of the opioid epidemic leaves a lot to be desired, with Adams cartoonishly popping pills and partying to Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer” when stoned. Adams is a great actress – maybe the best in the business. However, she’s painfully miscast, while Close is similarly over-the-top in as “mawmaw”. I never for a second felt like I was watching real people.
Thankfully the supporting roles fare better, with both Gabriel Basso (star of the under-rated KINGS OF SUMMER) and Owen Asztalos excellent as the older and younger versions of Vance, while Haley Bennett brings an empathy that’s lacking from Adams and Close’s roles to her portrayal of Vance’s sister Lindsay. Freida Pinto is also quite good as Vance’s supportive girlfriend, although the part is thinly sketched.
The worst thing about Howard’s film is that he had the opportunity to make an important film that shines a light on a disenfranchised community, but it meant confronting some uncomfortable truths and tackling some political hot potatoes. The only time the film sparks to life is in an early scene where Vance has to deal with some snobbery at a fancy dinner he attends, but it climaxes in one of those “Oscar clip” speeches where he colorfully puts the offending party in their place. That’s indicative of the film as a whole. It deserved nuanced treatment, rather than the cuddly, uplifting, “feel good” polish it’s given. As anyone who’s read it can tell you, both the book and the story of the people it depicts is anything but feel-good.