Hillbilly Elegy movie review & film summary (2020)

I don’t want to invalidate anyone’s take on how believable or empathetic the portrayal of Mamaw is, because everyone’s mileage will vary. But it’s worth pointing out that the obligatory credits scroll of real-life photos of the fictionalized characters confirms that Mamaw did indeed look just like that—and that a friend who grew up poor and white in small-town Arkansas and watched this film with me gasped when Close first appeared. “Oh my God,” she said. “It’s my grandmother, except for the cigarette.” 

Likewise, Adams’ performance has been dinged for its unmodulated desperation and histrionics, but I felt stirrings of recognition watching her scenes opposite the elder and younger J.D., having dealt many times with a family member whose life is wreck for the same reasons as Bev’s. Addicts who are constantly bottoming out, flirting with recovery, and going back to their destructive behaviors aren’t known for subtlety. 

Although the hero J.D., as written and performed, is dull—this is not a knock against either of the actors, who are doing what the script and director required of them—the dullness is integral to the hero’s relationship with most of the characters back home. It’s the rocklike, reactive nature of J.D. that makes his escape plausible. Some of the early screenwriting details lay on the “common man against the snobs” details rather thick—is it believable that this guy would’ve all the way to Yale Law School without learning which utensil to use for which course, or that there’s more than one type of white wine?—but the actors sell it, and Howard’s subdued yet borderline-mythologizing approach to J.D. is part of a long snobs-vs.-slobs tradition in American film. I like that the story ends on a slightly unresolved note (immediately spoiled by title cards telling you what happened to everybody), with the hero taking stock in everything that he’s tried to do for his mother and their extended family, and figuring how far he can extend his compassion before it breaks his own back. It feels realistic and right, and it validates something we know to be true: you can’t save others if they won’t save themselves.

I wanted a bigger, bolder, more imaginative take on this story than “Hillbilly Elegy” is willing or able to deliver. But there’s still a lot to like here—particularly the way Howard and his collaborators keep reminding you that the same incantatory defense mechanism that allows people to survive rotten circumstances—family is everything, and relatives always stick together—is also what cements their bondage to the worst forces in their lives. At key points in the films, characters are given a choice to do the morally or legally correct thing or stick by their kin. The baleful closeups of relatives in the room awaiting the decision foretell the decision before it’s been made. Family ties bind.

Available in select theaters today and on Netflix on November 25th.

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