As Netflix films make their way to the big screen, Ron Howard’s adaptation of “Hillbilly Elegy,” offers a look inside the lives of the lower-class white region of America that fueled the election of President Donald Trump in 2016.
Howard adapted J.D. Vance’s best selling 2016 memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy,” which tells the story of an extended family and the cultural crisis growing up in the Kentucky Appalachian region. Vance’s memoir highlights the attitudes and culture of poor, white Americans living among the Rust Belt, offering an explanation behind the fuel of Trump country.
Arriving in select theaters Nov. 11 and Netflix on Nov. 24, “Hillbilly Elegy” is well-meaning but often overshadowed by its broad generalizations of poor, white Americans. The melodramatic film showcases Vance’s disorderly family fighting poverty, addiction and resentment.
Bouncing back and forth through time, “Hillbilly Elegy” follows the life of J.D. Vance, played by Gabriel Basso. While attending Yale University, Vance is suddenly called back to his hometown of Middletown, Ohio, to help his mother, Beverly, played by Amy Adams, who had overdosed on heroin.
The memoir forces Vance to root up memories from his country upbringing, that he has since run away from. Howard’s film showcases the American dream of many back road communities in the Appalachian region, reflecting three generations of family history and values.
Vance’s complicated and rather painful childhood focuses on his mother’s messy, loud – and dare I say abusive – character, but falls short of giving audiences insight into her troubled soul.
The film leaves audiences with a mascara stained, screamy and raunchy Adams. Less the fault of Adams’s performance, the overdrawn, almost comical character failed to give audiences a coherent narrative.
The film lacks the needed background on Beverly and instead highlights her fatal flaws. Every time the film begins to give the audience a sympathetic moment for Beverly, the narrative quickly shifts to frame her as a drug-addicted, failed mother. The character’s lack of growth or depth might cause audiences to look past her humanity.
“Elegy” clings to Vance's Mamaw, played by Glenn Close. The foul-mouthed character serves as an anchor for J.D., offering him much needed encouragement and support. Close’s ability to create an on-screen dichotomy of a harsh yet heartwarming grandmother lingers in audiences’ minds for all the right reasons.
Although Howard successfully captures superficial, big emotional moments, he fails to focus on the crisis aspect of the narrative which made the original story a best seller. Vance’s memoir, originally praised as “The Skeleton Key” to Trump country, gave readers an honest insight into the “uncivilized election.”
This film is over-exaggerated, to the point of creating a tone-deaf perspective of poor, working-class Americans, which ultimately came off as a wealthy person’s idea of poor people. Between the non-stop drama and lack of plot, “Elegy” comes off as Oscar-bait, with inspirational aspects that fail to follow through.
“Hillbilly Elegy” attempts to reflect on the ideas of poverty and family, but creates a discourse of indifference instead. While Amy Adams and Glenn Close draw audiences in with their performance, the underdeveloped plot leaves viewers with a bitter taste in their mouth.
Rotten Tomatoes: 29%
Traveler Score: C+