My Mom (RIP) always thought the term for poor white rural mountain folk was "hilly-billy". She probably thought this because she thought it would/should rhyme, in the same way she kept calling the 1970's sitcom The Brady Brunch vs. The Brady Bunch. That came to mind while watching Hillbilly Elegy, a film that attempts to tell what should be a serious story but that bizarrely ends up almost mocking the very people it is meant to ennoble.
Shifting from 1997 and 2011, Hillbilly Elegy covers the memories of J.D. Vance (Gabriel Basso as an adult, Owen Asztalos as a child). As an adult, he is at Yale Law School, uncomfortably mixing with the elites and romancing pretty fellow student Usha (Freida Pinto).
As a child though, he grew up in Appalachia among what were once called "poor white trash". There's his unstable man-loving mother Bev (Amy Adams), his no-nonsense grandmother Mamaw (Glenn Close) and his longsuffering sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett). Bev is volatile to say the least: one moment cheerful and loving, the next moment hysterical and violent.
The past comes to haunt J.D. when on the cusp of having a second interview for a major law firm, Lindsay calls asking he come back to help with Bev, who has overdosed again. As he makes the mad commute between New Haven, Connecticut and Middletown, Ohio, he recalls the life he led among the poor kinfolk and the tough love Mamaw meted out while attempting to hold on to his future. Eventually, J.D. finds a delicate balance between his hick past and posh present.
It's a strange thing that while I figure both the book and film adaptation meant to be respectful of poor whites, the final result of Hillbilly Elegy ended up making the Vance family look freakish, comical, garish. The entire family came across looking like caricatures of "poor white trash" versus fully-formed albeit economically disadvantaged people. The worst of the lot is Adams, who gave perhaps the worst performance of her career in some misguided effort to win the Oscar she has continuously failed to.
She was comical in her hysterics, the wild shifts and overall broadness of her performance. Scenes that were intended as shocking or heartbreaking instead became hilarious in a bad, almost camp way. There's a sequence where she angrily beats J.D. so psychotically that he fled the car to the nearest house and resulted in the police handcuffing her. Instead of being horrified by this, the overall effect is one of laughter.
To be fair to Adams, director Ron Howard made her do things and crafted scenes that I doubt any actress could have made work. We see Nurse Bev's "descent" into drug use by seeing her roller-skate down the hospital hallway and giggling while Bananarama's Cruel Summer is playing.
With this sequence, you begin to wonder if it's Howard and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor who are the ones that are high. You watch this sequence in almost stunned disbelief, marveling how experts could see this and not think it wouldn't look funny at the least, an almost literal fever dream at worst.
Adams clearly wants an Oscar win after six failed nominations, but she really should pray she doesn't get a nomination because it would then put her at seven loses, tying her costar Close for most nominations without a win. Adams' scenery-chewing would normally make her an also-ran for awards but the sheer desperation in her performance may elicit almost a sympathy vote.
Hillbilly Elegy may get Close an eighth nomination and maybe her very first win, but it would be a de facto Lifetime Achievement Award because like her fellow frustrated nominee Adams her Mamaw is more oddball than realistic. At the end of the film, we do see footage of the real Vance family, and to her credit Close captures the mannerisms of her real-life counterpart.
That's just the problem though: Close gave a technically strong performance, but Mamaw still came across as caricature than character, let alone real-life person. The large glasses and clothes look closer to a spoof than a serious drama. I left Hillbilly Elegy thinking Close looked more hilarious than heartfelt, as if in this case she knew what to do but could not make herself be. I was thoroughly unimpressed, and my sense is that she, like Adams, could get nominations out of this but even then, Academy members would genuinely pause to ask, "Do we really want them to win for this?"
Asztalos did what he could with the role, attempting to make J.D.'s early life one that audiences would care about. He was better than Basso, whose J.D. came across as blank at best. Asztalos had some good moments, such as a long argument with Mamaw about a calculator, but Hillbilly Elegy opted to sacrifice subtlety about J.D. and the Vance family.
There's almost an arrogance, intended or not, about J.D. We see this when he is with Mamaw. He wants to see Meet the Press. She'd rather watch Terminator 2: Judgment Day. As directed by Howard and scripted by Taylor, it makes clear that J.D. is "intelligent" and his family are "hicks". HE wants to be informed and pursues knowledge of the world. His family wants to be entertained. The film makes it almost as if he is a lotus blossom growing among the muck of yahoos.
Hillbilly Elegy is misguided, as if made by people who look upon the subject as coming from another world. Perhaps in that way, it is not too far off the mark.