The 400-Word Review: Hillbilly Elegy

By Sean Collier

December 4, 2020

Hillbilly Elegy

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Oddly, I found that “Hillbilly Elegy” reminded me of the two “It” films. Both act in the mode of wistful, tribulatory coming-of-age tales; in reality, the genre of both is horror. The difference: The Stephen King adaptations know they’re works of terror. “Hillbilly Elegy” acts as though its undeniable darkness is some kind of innocent, folksy object lesson.

An adaptation of memoirist J.D. Vance’s book of the same name, “Hillbilly Elegy” is an indictment of the author’s family that he, mistakenly, believes to be an appreciation. Gabriel Basso plays Vance as he reflects on his Appalachian upbringing. His mother (Amy Adams) is a nurse in a decades-long battle with opiate addiction. His grandmother (Glenn Close) attempts to filter the family’s irrefutable toxicity through some lens of down-home values.

The point of entry finds Vance at Yale Law, scraping the means for higher education together with the help of an impossibly patient girlfriend (Freida Pinto). When his mother overdoses, he drives back to Middletown, Ohio — the family’s roots are in rural Kentucky, but they relocated due to an ill-timed pregnancy a few generations back — to clean up the mess. Theoretically, the drama of the film involves whether Vance will make it back to Connecticut for a make-or-break interview, but that’s treated as an afterthought.

“Hillbilly Elegy” eventually devolves into vignettes of misery, a series of pointless remembrances of rampages past. By about the one-hour mark, director Ron Howard and Vance simply add more superfluous evidence that the writer had a tough life, ignoring that the point is exhaustingly established.


There are serviceable elements of “Hillbilly Elegy,” in that there are professionals in the room. Howard directs well, because he’s a good director; Close is excellent, since she can’t help but be. Unfortunately, those flashes of competence are in service of a fundamentally flawed film, one determined to present the author’s reality and never once examine it.

It’s curious that “Hillbilly Elegy” was released on Netflix, only a few months after one of the streamer’s best films to date, “The 40-Year-Old Version.” In the latter movie, filmmaker Radha Blank railed against “poverty porn,” the leering dramatization of unfortunate circumstances that well-meaning privileged people use to feel like they understand the world. “Hillbilly Elegy” is that exact kind of exploitation. Whether it’s redemptive, or interesting, that Vance is exploiting himself is up to the viewer.

For me: Not at all.

My Rating: 4/10

“Hillbilly Elegy” is now streaming on Netflix.



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