The Reel Review
This Netflix adaptation of J.D. Vance’s 2016 memoir stars Amy Adams and Glenn Close as matriarchs of a self-described family of “hill people” from American Appalachia, as they cope with a life of poverty, drug addiction, physical and emotional abuse and poor life choices.
The premise is pretty simple. Now a Yale law student, J.D. (Gabriel Basso) is asked to return home on the eve of a very important job interview to help get his heroin-addicted mom (Adams) into a drug treatment facility. A series of flashbacks show the disastrous effects that dysfunction and a lack of opportunity have had on his family – and the life-changing effect that one person – his mamaw – had when she took an active role in raising him.
The story from director Ron Howard and writer Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water) is heavily watered down from Vance’s more scathing, controversial memoir that blamed Appalachians’ economic woes on laziness and an over-reliance on government handouts. With less of his novel’s provocative social commentary, the film is a more female character-driven, “hillbillified” Lifetime movie – just with better acting.
Adams, and Close in particular, capture the look of Vance’s mother and grandmother with a shocking degree of accuracy, and with a raw authenticity in their performances that those unfamiliar with hillbillies might unfairly characterize as histrionic or even lampoonish. And while a bit more introspection in the story would have gone a long way, as it is, Hillbilly Elegy, the film, nicely skims the surface of the challenges of overcoming a dysfunctional family life.
• Between them, Amy Adams and Glenn Close have 13 Oscar nominations – six for Adams and seven for Close – and as yet, no wins.
• Gabriel Basso is known for his roles in the Showtime series The Big C and the 2011 sci-fi thriller Super 8.
• Most of Hillbilly Elegy was filmed in Macon and Clayton, Georgia, with the motel scene in the finale filmed at the Cheshire Motor Inn in Atlanta, which was featured in 2013’s Identity Thief, which starred Melissa McCarthy and Jason Bateman, and Clint Eastwood’s 2018 crime thriller The Mule.