Written by: Vanessa Taylor
Starring: Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Gabriel Basso, Haley Bennett, Freida Pinto, Bo Hopkins
The people that raise you have an indelible mark on your life, no matter how much separation gets built to move away from any influence. It makes the job of any parent one wrought with challenges with the weight of raising a child. Hillbilly Elegy allows a young man to reflect on the influence of his family members in his upbringing, as he enters a world unafraid to mock his past way of life. Unfortunately, even with the talent involved, the story cannot escape the purely shoddy writing and the grossly overly acted performances.
In the process of applying for summer internships while in law school, J.D. (Gabriel Basso) gets a call that he needs to go home and see his mother Bev (Amy Adams). This allows him the opportunity to reflect on his upbringing and the impact his mother and grandmother (Glenn Close) had on his upbringing.
With two long-overdue prestige actors searching for their Academy Awards, Hillbilly Elegy represents the absolute definition of terrible Oscar bait. From its idea of “uglying” up its female actors to embarrassingly showy performances, watching this just made me sad for both Adams and Close. I understand they want a role that will take them to the promised land after many more worthy opportunities getting shut out, but this is not the way and it shows with how overdone these performances prove to be, and this film is certainly beneath their talent level.
This story adapts a book all about someone looking back on the experience of living in Appalachia, a region only people in the surrounding area could recognize, and all of the issues embroiled with residing there. It comes with the struggle of poverty but also drug addiction in the way it impacts Bev. This then clashes with the future timeline of J.D. applying to these prestigious internships, as he puts together he has lived a vastly different life than his other classmates. For all Hillbilly Elegy attempts to touch on, it does not really explore any of its ideas. The final result just shows a melodrama about a boy and his family, which does not carry much intrigue because the “prestige” actors involved just took these roles to yell and scream with no real distinct purpose.
It jumps around to different ideas such as poverty, drug addiction, condescension by coastal individuals, but none of it really sticks because the film does not really buckle down on any. Instead, we just get forced to follow J.D.’s journey and I cannot stress this enough, this character is aggressively uninteresting. No nuance whatsoever, he simply signifies being a person who got out of Appalachia to become a lawyer; something no one in his family would have thought was possible. A combination of the writing and unfortunate performance by Gabriel Basso creates a character with no real discernible qualities to follow. He simply becomes a method through flashbacks to show that the film really wants to display the overacting by its stars.
Writing about Amy Adams putting in a bad performance feels wrong considering she stands as one of my favorite actors to ever grace the silver screen, but it must be said that the work she does as Bev is atrocious. She certainly brings her talent but with this performance, she trades in the nuance of her finest performances and just becomes a cannon of screaming and over-the-top behavior. This character did not feel like a real person on many occasions and unfortunately took me out of any progress the narrative tried to set up. It constantly blared the idea of her finally doing something that would get her the right attention for an award she has deserved for several of her performances already. Glenn Close does not reach the level Adams goes to, but she walks the fine line. Close has those moments where she shows a bit of restraint and serves as a force of consistency but once she gets matched up with Adams, they both just lose any sort of semblance of humanity these characters had left.
If you were to look up comedy sketches of Oscar bait, you would see the level of poverty porn Hillbilly Elegy does with a straight face. None of it feels genuine and not a single character gets any real depth to work with. It solely works in the quieter moments because it slows down enough to take it all in. Everything else just makes for an empty story with nothing to hang onto other than seeing such a bland character set himself up for his career as a lawyer. As the credits rolled, I just let off a big shrug and just felt bad that Adams and Close felt they needed to stoop to this level to get the recognition they deserve.