It’s rare to see a film that feels like it’s divided into two separate films based on the different time periods it depicts. Such is the case with Ron Howard’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” based on the 2016 memoir by J.D. Vance that describes his troubling upbringing in Ohio involving his mother’s heroin addiction.
One half of the film depicts Vance’s childhood and the complex relationship between his mother Bev (a brilliant Amy Adams) and his tough-as-nails but protective grandmother (Glenn Close), the other following his rushed return home fourteen years later when his mother is hospitalized due to her addiction the night before his interview for Yale Law school.
“Hillbilly Elegy” is a tough film to pick apart because so much of the film works beautifully while other elements fail miserably. We feel like we’re watching two different Ron Howards at work based on the different stages depicted in Vance’s life — his childhood scenes honest and tender, his young adult scenes forced and horribly directed.
What makes the childhood aspect of this true story so powerful is young actor Owen Asztalos’s remarkable talent. This is an actor who clearly has a gift for acting and is already capable of bringing to life the complex trauma and hardships of childhood. He works terrifically with veteran actors Am Adams and Glenn Close, who both give perform some of the best acting in their careers.
Adams, who is capable of playing a sweet and innocent Disney princess (“Enchanted”) and a gritty Boston bartender (“The Fighter”) explores her darker side as an actor, realistically and rawly depicting the harrowing struggles of heroin addiction and the nature of dysfunctional parenting.
Who I would choose between Adams and Close to take home the next Best Supporting Actress is still too tough to say at this point. As of now, I would have to go with Close simply because her character is what holds the film together. Her acting is off the charts and in some ways reminds me of my great-grandmother but her hilarious and heartfelt character is what gives “Hillbilly Elegy” a beating heart and will be the most memorable aspect of the film for most viewers.
As much as I enjoyed seeing Vance’s childhood depicted on screen, the scenes in which he is an aspiring Yale Law student forced to come home to Ohio have major issues. For one, Howard’s direction embodies every Hollywood cliche and lacks any style or substance. At times we feel like we’re witnessing a Hallmark movie, the last five minutes of the film in particular playing like a commercial for Yale Law School itself.
Rising actor Gabriel Basso’s performance as Vance is at times very real and moving but overall the actor isn’t able to shine as much as he could have due to the poor writing from Vanessa Taylor that involves brief patches of unnecessary narration and a cheesy relationship with his beautiful and loving girlfriend Usha ("Freids Pinto," "Slumdog Millionaire") that is drowned in too many cliches.
Much criticism has been drawn for how Ron Howard depicts the Ohio town portrayed in the film, many claiming he fails to explore the true struggles of rural America, others claiming not enough time was explored to study the characters whose struggles he tries to depict. I’d say that at times he tries too hard to get the message across that rural America is forgotten, yet doesn’t develop any characters outside of Vance’s family enough for us to truly see this struggle.
“Hillbilly Elegy” is a very Hollywoodized film, as is with any Ron Howard film. I’ve often been critical of Howard as a filmmaker and feel that he is not only an overrated director but an ungifted one in general. With this film, we clearly get the sense that the film is based on a written source and are very aware that this is a Hollywood take on family dysfunction and drug addiction.
With all that said, there’s no denying that this is an entertaining and moving film that keeps you engaged from start to finish. Despite all the issues the film has, Amy Adams and Glenn Close’s powerful performances hold the film together and make it worth the while.