'Hillbilly Elegy' Is a Huge Whiff for Two Great Actresses

The Netflix adaptation of J.D. Vance's book falls flat.

hillbilly elegy, amy adams
Netflix

In a year without a traditional Oscar season, watching Hillbilly Elegy—Ron Howard's adaptation of J.D. Vance's bestselling memoir, streaming now on Netflix—is jarring. There are other movies that have come out that are angling for awards, but none of them have that old-fashioned, "look at me, look at how Important this is!" sheen that Hillbilly Elegy does. It's a movie with a lot of makeup and a lot of yelling that ultimately says very little. 

When Vance's book came out in 2016, it was hailed as a decoder that helped explain Trump's rise among white rural voters. But the movie version steers almost completely clear of politics. Instead, it mostly acts as a biopic of Vance, a venture capitalist, who made it out of his impoverished childhood to attend Yale Law School, despite his unstable mother Bev (Amy Adams) with the help of his no-nonsense grandma Mamaw (Glenn Close). 

The idea is that, along the way, the viewer should learn something about the moral codes of these proud "hillbillies," but really, Vanessa Taylor's script is just an excuse for Adams to rant and rave while Close spouts nonsensical aphorisms. The most confounding of the aforementioned sayings is when Mamaw tells young J.D. as they watch Terminator 2: Judgment Day that you can be one of three kinds of people in the world: "a good terminator, a bad terminator, or neutral." What exactly does this mean? Ever since the dialogue was featured in the trailer, people have been trying to parse this out. Why is everyone a terminator? If you're "neutral," does that mean you're not a terminator? This is not really the lesson of James Cameron's franchise. (A better analogy might have been: "You're either a Terminator, a John Connor, or a Sarah Connor," but that's neither here nor there.) 

That might seem like a long digression for just one silly line of dialogue, but the rest of the movie is so blah that you find yourself fixating on these moments, which feel not just confounding but counter to the authenticity for which this project is supposedly striving.

In the voiceover that bookends the film, J.D. explains that while he grew up mostly in Middletown, Ohio, north of Cincinnati, his family is from Kentucky, which is where they developed their customs and their vices. The cold open paints this Appalachian existence as an idyllic and hardscrabble place where J.D. and his family spend vacations before heading back to their depressed lives in a small city.

hillbilly elegy, glenn close
Netflix

The rest of the movie hops back and forth in time. In the "present" thread, J.D. is at Yale, trying to win an internship but feeling out of place among the cosmopolitan corporate lawyers who know the difference between white wines and what forks to use at a restaurant. At a fancy dinner party, he gets a call from his sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett) who tells him that his mother overdosed on heroin. He drives back to help her, and as he struggles with her current state, Howard teases out their relationship through a series of flashbacks. 

It's almost hard to blame Adams—one of the finest actors of her generation—for whiffing the way she does while playing Bev. Every single scene she's featured in ends in a crescendo, which gets repetitive as Adams howls her lines. We're meant to understand that Bev is irrational and often cruel, but ultimately loving in her own way, a victim herself of abuse and addiction, but no one involved takes time to develop her beyond the surface-level mania. So each time we encounter her she ends up going ballistic, messy hair falling across her face as she intends harm to herself or someone else. Close's Mamaw is similarly thinly drawn. Caked in layers of prosthetics, her performance is entirely aesthetic. Mamaw never feels like a real person so much as a personification of folksy love. Meanwhile, Taylor and Howard allude to Bev's own troubled childhood, but only blink at the notion that Mamaw perpetrated a culture of violence. 

Without exactly giving away the closing beat, it's difficult to overstate how much Hillbilly Elegy fizzles upon conclusion. The screen fades to black and you're left wondering: Is that it? For all the overbearing sound and fury of the two lead performances, for all the purported gravitas, in the end it just feels pointless, a poverty porn portrayal of the lives it intends to honor. It's the kind of movie that was made for acclaim, but instead just ends up feeling like Hollywood at its most cartoonish.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.