Although Ron Howard’s newest movie, Hillbilly Elegy, is set in rural Ohio and Kentucky and not Cambria County, locals may find people and places in the film that look very familiar.
The adaptation of J.D. Vance’s memoir is an honest and raw representation of a certain kind of folk of a certain time and place in the world. It is especially powerful to those whose own family life may have included abuse, drug addiction and financial difficulties.
Hillbilly Elegy follows a family of “hillbillies.” (If the film is to be believed, in Ohio they don’t appreciate the word “redneck” and see it as a slur, but they don’t seem to mind the word “hillbilly.”)
J.D. is the main character. He’s a chubby kid whose good heart is nearly destroyed by those who should be caring for him. Gabriel Basso and Owen Asztalos play J.D.: as an adult and as a kid, respectively.
Amy Adams plays Bev, J.D.’s mother who tries to love her son throughout her lifetime of drug abuse. Glenn Close plays his grandmother, who struggles with deciding whether or not she should step in and try to raise J.D. herself.
It would be easy to say Close is the standout performance of the movie; her transformation is near-total. She fully embodies this real-world grandmother, deeply caring, but tough-as-meat because the world she’s in demands it.
Yet, she doesn’t stands out in depth from Adams’ also awesome performance. Bev is the soul of the movie and Adams captures the complicated person while portraying her. Though she did not require the same impressive physical transformation that Close did, her performance is equally engaging.
For as much praise as there is to lay on the cast, there is one character who stands out as adequate rather than stellar. Basso who plays J.D. as an adult is, in fact, adequate. That might not be a criticism, however; as it’s reminiscent of a cultural wisdom often spoken of Batman: “Batman is the least interesting character in any story he’s in.”
The same could be even more truly spoken of characters like Harry Potter, Cinderella and the lead doctor on a dozen medical dramas.
All that is to say, sometimes great stories have boring protagonists. J.D. being unremarkable is fine when he serves as the grounding point for the deeper characters in his family.
The film benefits from the reliability of veteran director Howard. Occasionally and selectively, the camera engages in a clearly cinematic way. For the most part though, the direction is simple to let the actors keep the viewer’s attention. Howard is mature enough as a director to let them have the stage in this character-exploration film.
One of the most grabbing aspects of the movie was the filming locations and sets. It felt incredibly true to the world at that time and place. Attention was paid to what should and should not be in every individual shot.
I really enjoyed this movie.
It’s not a film that effectively made me empathize with an unknown walk of life, quite as much as it was a movie that reminded me of my own.
Will it click for you, who perhaps weren’t a chubby Gameboy-wielding preteen in a crumbling household in the late 1990s? I can’t say.
Nonetheless, I give Hillbilly Elegy an A.