Every award season delivers a myriad of accomplished films (One Night in Miami and Minari are some early standouts), but each breakout success is often matched by confounding misfires (Ammonite). Several films desperately vie for voter’s attention, but their obvious placating only creates a ringing hollowness. Netflix’s latest awards hopeful Hillbilly Elegy sadly trips into that category, with director Ron Howard’s film merely operating as overworked awards-bait.
Adapted from J.D. Vance’s autobiographical novel, Hillbilly Elegy follows a Yale law student (Gabriel Brasso plays Vance) drawn back to his hometown after his mother lands in the hospital. While there, he grapples with his family history, Appalachian values, and the true meaning of the American dream.
Vance’s novel was a massive success, a best-selling work that generated its fair share of controversy along the way (journalists question the accuracy of Vance’s depiction of Appalachian life). Even with the mixed reception, it’s easy to comprehend the work’s dramatically enticing values, with Vance’s canvas delving into his personal pains while breaking down the inherent stereotypes facing his community. Weaving nonlinear storytelling and a subplot on the opioid crisis’s impact in low-income areas, Hillbilly Elegy should be the type of film that speaks volumes about the American experience.
Instead, Howard’s film takes the work’s tangible values and dials them to the max, playing to the back of the auditorium with grandiose emotional beats. This crowd-pleasing approach drains the material of its innate humanity, turning the character’s personal struggles into melodramatic theater. A melody of over-produced score choices and insincere speeches only add to the lingering emptiness. Howard’s mannered filmmaking identity meshes with the material like oil and water, with the usually accomplished director never tuning in to the material’s frequency. Here’s a film that’s desperately calling for raw emotionality, yet Howard only presents us with contrived and poorly-orchestrated plot mechanics.
Hillbilly Elegy‘s overdone nature leaves its cast out to dry. Glenn Close and Amy Adams rank among the industry’s most acclaimed talents, yet their abilities are rarely on full display. Close’s take on Vance’s protective grandma gets lost amidst the accent and prosthetics, while Adams tirelessly strains for emotional beats that aren’t well-developed on the page. The stacked supporting cast (Hayley Bennett, Frieda Pinto, and Basso) is left standing on the sidelines, watching the theatrics without having much presence of their own onscreen.
There’s very little about Hillbilly Elegy that feels genuine. Howard and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor depict the character’s gritty lifestyle with a dispassionate gaze, portraying the Appalachian lifestyle with an “aw-shucks” folksiness that simply feels false. Taylor’s inability to mesh the dissonant timelines only makes this matter worse, with the film aimlessly drifting by without developing either arc in the process. All and all, it’s just a mess, one that isn’t particularly endearing considering its contrived origins.
To see acclaimed talents coming together for a vapid piece of awards bait is a letdown, and I hope Hillbilly Elegy‘s falterings will only promote filmmakers to explore avenues outside the traditionalist norms.
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