There are interesting, and important, themes at play in Hillbilly Elegy, about the difficulties of escaping cycles of violence and how destitution itself is a disease but the narrative bounces back and forth between J.D.’s past and present a bit too loosely, to the point where you start disengaging emotionally because we’re only getting the bullet points of hill folk strife.
Again, Close and Adams are very good, and when you see actual footage of J.D’s “Mamaw” and mother during the final credits, you’ll note just how close these high-caliber performers came to mirroring the actual people. But Hillbilly Elegy needed to be a bit rougher and a touch less forgiving. It wouldn’t fix the story structure, but you get the feeling someone could have mined more out of this tale with a shoestring budget than this sanguine, souped-up Ron Howard production.
Hillbilly Elegy Images
Told through the eyes of J.D. as both a teen and a young adult attending Yale (Owen Asztalos and The Big C’s Gabriel Basso, respectively), Hillbilly Elegy never quite touches down on the runway long enough to resonate. You get flashes of manic performances, particularly from Adams as the frightfully unbalanced addict Bev, J.D.’s torrent of a mother, but you never sit with anything long enough to care. The film even resorts to a quick montage in the end, of J.D.’s life after he decides to get his s*** together, to catch us fully up to the present.
Close’s Mamaw, J.D.’s eventual hard-nosed caregiver, is excellent as a chain-smoking, cussing granny and some of the best moments in the movie come from Mamaw’s choice to try and do better with J.D. than she did with Bev. The story breezes past most of Mamaw’s sinister shortcomings as an actual mother, having raised Bev in a calamitous household of emotional horrors, relegating it to quick flashbacks and a few lines like ‘I could have done better” (to say the very least), but Mamaw and J.D.’s relationship is still the most formidable, and satisfying, part of the movie. Even if it plays out in a very rote Hollywood manner.Freida Pinto is good in sort of a thankless role as J.D.s “present day” girlfriend, Usha. Most of her scenes take place on the phone as she tries to steer J.D. back to his internship interviews while he’s away taking care of his junkie mother, afraid that Usha will leave him if she knows the full breadth of his family history. J.D., while pining for his summers in Kentucky hill country, actually grew up in dilapidated, depressed Middletown, Ohio – a place that was more harmful to his family than if they’d actually stayed back in the mountains.
It’s amidst the jobless and forlorn Middletown that J.D.’s life starts taking savage turns. Hence, the small town utopia his Mamaw once escaped to, making his clan “Hillbilly royalty” of sorts, winds up being more dangerous than Appalachia. Hillbilly Elegy isn’t a total loss, thanks mostly to energized performances, but it also doesn’t quite deliver the message it wants to deliver. It’s too polished, and unfocused, to fully immerse you into its grit. Splitting the story up between the past and present (the present here being 2011) provides scattershot screen grabs of J.D.’s life in ways that keep you at a distance.
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