Netflix Review – Hillbilly Elegy (2020)

I can’t defend her, but I’m trying to forgive her.”

Ron Howard seems to have such a strangely varied filmography, it’s so peculiar to watch this and think it came from the man who brought us How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Solo: A Star Wars Story. Hillbilly Elegy is a mostly reminiscent tale of a man reliving the torments of his childhood as he tries to care for his aging mother in the present after she overdoses. Amy Adams’ Bev is the mother who can do no right, and the not-so role model to her children, Gabriel Basso’s J.D. and Haley Bennett‘s Lindsay, both long-suffering and weary of their mother’s antics that seem to often descend into mania and even violence. If you can even mildly relate to the experience of living within a troubled family, this will no doubt be an uncomfortable viewing, perhaps in more ways than one.

J.D. in his younger years (played by Owen Asztalos) seems aimless, undriven and destined to fail in life. His relationship with his mother is inherently toxic, passed down from Bev’s relationship with her own mother, Glenn Close’s ‘Mamaw’ who may just be as unhinged as Bev is. J.D.’s many flashbacks interspersed through the film, unrelated in most respects save for the theme of pain, should feel like unwanted memories flooding his subconscious in sharp succession, but instead they just serve to split the film into two. And as the narrative jumps from past to present and back again a dozen times over, neither time period feels interesting enough for you to want to stay in or get back to it, the transitions just sort of happen unexpectedly and we as the audience are just led along in this pattern that doesn’t seem to translate well to any form of storytelling.

What Hillbilly Elegy can be noted for is its cast, Adams and Close give commanding performances, and Asztalos stands strong aside his cast mates, showing a good on-screen presence that perfectly compliments Basso’s performance as the character. In almost all circumstances here, it feels like the cast as a whole is let down by a script that’s unimaginative and obviously hard to deliver. Although her character seems central at first and is slowly pushed to the sidelines before becoming relevant again and then less so, and on and on, Adams gives the standout performance here. At times she seems completely unrecognisable; so deep in the character of Bev that it’s hard to remember ever seeing her play anyone else, ever. It’s a testimony to her dedication and talent as a performer that unfortunately feels ill-spent here.

Who am I supposed to talk to?!
Talk to yourself. Works for me.”

Hillbilly Elegy is a rough amalgamation of themes, subplots and characters that all feel thrown together, hoping that it not only all sticks but then harmonises, too, it fails to do this on both accounts, putting forth a story that gives you no reason to really care about it. The film is based on a memoir written by the real J.D. that I would assume is more captivating than Howard’s clunky and irrelevant adaptation.

Hillbilly Elegy is now available to stream on Netflix.

★★


Drama | USA, 2020 | 15 |Netflix | 24th November 2020 |Dir.Ron Howard | Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Gabriel Basso