Hillbilly Elegy movie review: Amy Adams, Glenn Close offer little consolation in Netflix's neoliberal morality play

If anything, Hillbilly Elegy proves even the best actors don't always make the best choices.

Prahlad Srihari November 25, 2020 08:46:15 IST

1/5

Amy Adams and Glenn Close are the kind of actors who can make an average movie watchable by their sheer presence. They don't have to be liaising with aliens or boiling bunnies to make an impact. It is aggravating that the Academy's chronic myopia has left the two actors with no gold figurines to show for their storied careers. Close has gone home from the Oscars empty-handed seven times. At her heels is Adams with six. Call it: 13 reasons why the Oscars don't matter.

Yet, despite their religious commitment of body and mind, they can't pull their new film Hillbilly Elegy out of the morass. In fact, if Ron Howard's blatant awards-season baiting won't earn them career Oscars, it may end up Norbiting some of their credibility.

The movie comes in the wake of a hotly contested election in a politically divided nation. It is an adaptation of a 2016 memoir by JD Vance, a conservative commentator who started a venture capital fund with Trump fanboy Peter Thiel. In his book, Vance made broad connections about the position of the white underclass based on his own experiences growing up in Kentucky and Ohio. Some believed his story had answers on how identity politics played a role in US President Donald Trump's election, and why "hillbillies" became one of the key Republican voting blocs. Others thought he wasn't humanising them so much as summarising them into stereotypes. Brushing aside these political implications, Howard and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor re-examine the story through their liberal lens, focusing their filtered gaze on the Vance family

JD (played by Owen Asztalos as a boy, and Gabriel Basso as an adult) is interviewing for an internship at a noted law firm when he learns his mother Beverley (Adams) has been hospitalised after a heroin overdose. So he returns home to Middletown, Ohio to oversee his mother's care. The tension driving the narrative engine pivots on if JD will be able to help his family through Bev's latest relapse before his final interview the following day.

Hillbilly Elegy movie review Amy Adams Glenn Close offer little consolation in Netflixs neoliberal morality play

Young JD and Bev

The story forks into dual timelines: JD's efforts to help his mother break the cycle of addiction is interspersed with flashbacks that colour the present. Long flashbacks revisit JD's childhood as the family deals with Bev's self-destructive spiral. We move from JD's childhood to the present and back, with a Bev episode interspersed in between. For context, we also get a flashback of Bev's childhood growing up with an abusive and alcoholic father. These timelines don't quite flow into each other effortlessly. They run over each other and disrupt the forward momentum.

Hillbillies have long been derided by Hollywood and mainstream media, and Howard doesn't really offer a rebuttal to the stereotypes. He instead reinforces them — drug abuse, domestic violence, and dialect — without scrutinising how they ended up at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. Adams, especially, feels like a walking parody. In more fine-drawn roles, she turns moments of quiet reflection into a portrait rich in poignant detail. She brings order to the chaotic worlds her characters often inhabit. Here, she is asked to add to the chaos. 

Bev makes the kind of bad choices that belong in a horror movie. These choices snowball into an abyss of terrible consequences for those trapped in her orbit. Prone to wild mood swings, she alternates between loving mom and impending disaster, much to JD's dismay. The older he gets, the more fractious their relationship becomes as he grows tired of her lies and relapses. Also trapped in Bev's orbit is Lindsay (Haley Bennet), JD's self-sacrificing sister who cares for their mother so her brother can have a better future.

Hillbilly Elegy movie review Amy Adams Glenn Close offer little consolation in Netflixs neoliberal morality play

Lindsay, JD, and Bev

Close plays JD's grandma, who becomes a proxy mother of sorts. Mamaw, as he calls her, can be as affectionate as assertive, protecting JD against her daughter's worst impulses. She radiates a dogged, single-minded persistence that makes JD believe everything is going to be okay. Close earns the very fabric of her role, sporting an oversized T-shirt to match her oversized glasses. When she isn't smoking cigarettes, she is smoking tough-love witticisms and Terminator catchphrases. Her unruly wig matches Adams' demeanour.

These aren't actors who need make-up to disappear into their roles. Both have consistently picked great movies to star in. Adams, in particular, has rarely placed a wrong foot in the last decade or so. If anything, Hillbilly Elegy proves even the best actors don't always make the best choices. 

Rounding off JD’s support system is Usha (Freida Pinto), his Indian-American girlfriend who helps him acclimatise to the Yale lifestyle. Being the first person in his family to attend college, JD feels like a square peg in a round hole. At a dinner-cum-interview with law firm partners, he is plagued by social anxiety. When the waiter asks him if he would prefer a Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, he doesn't answer, worried he'll embarrass himself. When he is intimidated by all the extra forks on the dinner table, he calls Usha to walk him through Cutlery 101. In a later phone call as she plays the supportive girlfriend, we learn her father came to the US with nothing and had to similarly find his way. A single line of her backstory is all we get. Because all the women, from Mamaw to mom, from Lindsay to Usha, exist either as catalysts or constraints on JD's path to the American dream.

Hillbilly Elegy movie review Amy Adams Glenn Close offer little consolation in Netflixs neoliberal morality play

Glenn Close as Mamaw in Hillbilly Elegy

As the book's subtitle ("A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis") suggests, Vance diagnoses the root cause of his volatile upbringing as a cultural crisis, rather than systemic. It's a shockingly unsound diagnosis. His family struggles to pay for Bev's rehab, and ends up treating her addiction in a rundown motel. The solution here doesn’t lie in preaching self-accountability, but enforcing systemic changes to fix mental healthcare in the US. JD struggled to pay for rehab because the Yale tuition fees has left him with little to spend and in credit card debt. He had to join the Marines to pay for college in the first place. Yet, he preaches hard work and perseverance, instead of a revamp of the education and finance systems. The reason poverty and addiction became a family tradition among "hillbillies" is because coal companies turned their Appalachian neighbourhoods into wastelands. Yet, he serves us this neoliberal morality play as if it were a motivation manifesto. Against the backdrop of all these systemic factors of poverty and addiction, he keeps insisting the solution lies in stick-to-it-iveness and belief in the American Dream.

How the American Dream can also be a nightmare is not exactly an under-filmed subject. Winter's Bone, Matewan, and Harlan County, USA provide far better insight in this regard. In contrast, Hillbilly Elegy tries to indoctrinate that beloved national ethos, which affirms you can escape your past, and achieve prosperity simply through hard work and self-determination. At the same time, Mamaw affirms, "Family is the only thing that means a goddamn thing." These two affirmations are preached with evangelical persistence, even if they aren't always compatible. 

Hillbilly Elegy movie review Amy Adams Glenn Close offer little consolation in Netflixs neoliberal morality play

Amy Adams as Beverley in Hillbilly Elegy

The film is less an elegy, more a limerick. It's one you've likely heard before. The punchline is in the title — hillbilly — and you hear it in every Bev-Mamaw confrontation, in the way JD says “syrup”, and all the sugary platitudes and melodrama. But no amount of sugar can help this bitter medicine go down.

Hillbilly Elegy is streaming on Netflix.

Rating: *

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