Based on the best-selling memoir from author J.D. Vance, "Hillbilly Elegy" is so vanilla you can almost taste it. But mixed in are two performances that will surely generate some buzz come Oscar season...assuming there is an Oscar season.
Director Ron Howard brings "Hillbilly Elegy" to Netflix, a personal story about how J.D. Vance was able to overcome his rural upbringing and class limitations to pursue his dreams. The two portrayals of Vance in the film (a younger Vance played by Owen Asztalos and an adult Vance played by Gabriel Basso) are powerful, but will most likely be overshadowed by the performances of Amy Adams as his mom, Bev, and Glenn Close, nearly unrecognizable under make-up as his tough but caring "Mamaw." (There are also good supporting performances from Haley Bennett as J.D.'s sister, Lindsay, and Freida Pinto as his love interest).
With narration (from Basso) as Vance reflects back on his tough childhood, "Hillbilly Elegy" is about the struggles associated with trying to achieve some upward mobility when a person is born into poverty. Vance wasn't supposed to go to Yale, or become a successful author and speaker. That's not exactly the career path for men born in the Appalachians. He had to learn to love his drug-addicted mother without being consumed by her, and the movie serves as a vehicle for Vance to show his love and respect to the woman that he feels really was the one that helped him along...his Mamaw.
Unfortunately, Ron Howard directs "Hillbilly Elegy" with a paint-by-numbers approach. Nearly from the first frame, you can predict where this thing is going, and much of it is a bit too "on-the-nose." It feels like a film that might have been made in the mid-80s...nothing wrong with the 80s of course, but modern viewers have come to expect a bit more.
And while Glenn Close's performance - down to her walk - is quite impressive, Amy Adams puts on a showcase. Her character is sadly not given anything that we don't expect - the sort of character we've seen hundreds of time on film - but within these restraints, Adams shows why she's one of the leading actresses going in Hollywood.
Because of its simplicity and perhaps its relatability, "Hillbilly Elegy" is passable, even if it isn't going to create too many award season waves. There's nothing really wrong with it, yet there's not really too much going for it other than its impressive ensemble.
Run Time: 1 hour 56 minutes.
Based on the book by J.D. Vance.
Starring: Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Haley Bennett, Freida Pinto, Gabriel Basso, Owen Asztalos.
Directed by Ron Howard ("Solo: A Star Wars Story," "Rush," "Frost/Nixon," "The Da Vinci Code," "Cinderella Man," "A Beautiful Mind," "Apollo 13," "Far and Away," "Backdraft," "Willow," "Cocoon").
"Hillbilly Elegy" is in theaters on Friday, November 13th, 2020, and available on Netflix as of November 24th, 2020.
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