The movie Hillbilly Elegy sets itself up with a challenge it never overcomes — celebrating family disfunction. The movie’s inspiration, J.D. Vance, credits a hard-knocks childhood for turning him into a successful lawyer and bestselling author, painting a vivid portrait of his drug-addled mother and crusty grandmother. Director Ron Howard runs with these two women as the selling point for his movie version of the book.
Howard maintains Vance as the story’s central voice and character but gives this starring part to little-known Gabriel Basso. In contrast, supporting roles go to acting powerhouses Glenn Close and Amy Adams, both capable of headlining their own movie. Each buries herself in makeup to transform into picture-perfect images from Vance’s real-life scrapbook. That search for reality proves striking but unnecessary on two levels.
One, since neither plays an instantly recognizable, famous character, there seems no need for photographic precision. And more importantly, these skilled actresses know how to put their bodies and faces into character without flashy effects. They do so in Hillbilly Elegy, delivering Oscar-bait performances.
Certainly, their superb makeup and costuming do no harm and enhance a torn from life sensation. Howard, the Oscar-winning director of other true-life narratives like A Beautiful Mind and Apollo 13, knows the basics about presenting history. Still, problems occur with Hillbilly Elegy, primarily from contradictions in its source material.
For instance, Vance narrates how he always felt most comfortable in Kentucky with his hillbilly roots. On screen, a bunch of kids beat him up. But the strong-as-igneous-ro
ck family bonds step in when all of Vance’s adult relatives come to his rescue and beat up the bully kids. Presented as warm and fuzzy, this memory feels cold and harsh.
The uneasy emotions it generates continue with a story modeling the exact opposite of any child-rearing handbook. For that matter, actions defy “tough love” strategies of dealing with drug addiction, instead providing a chauvinist sense of quote “my family, right or wrong.” And despite an ending featuring a positive twist, this family feels wrong.