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Columns Eleanor Ringel Cater

‘Hillbilly Elegy’ – ‘flavorless’ film misses mark in its view of the South

A scene from "Hillbilly Elegy"

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

The best thing about “Hillbilly Elegy” is its title.

As a book, it was of some interest, examining the dead-end existence that defines the South most of us don’t think about much.

Movie poster of “Hillbilly Elegy”

Not the South of moonlight and magnolias or Civil Rights and the Civil War, but the ragged end of the South, more dirt-poor than debutantes. If you saw “Winter’s Bone,” the movie that introduced us to Jennifer Lawrence pre-“Hunger Games,” you know the territory. If you saw “Winter’s Bone,” you also know just how clichéd and inept “Hillbilly Elegy” is.

Ron Howard, who apparently learned nothing during his days as Opie on “The Andy Griffith Show,” has given us a flavorless film with only the thinnest veneer of regional insight. It could just as well be called “A Tree Grows South of Brooklyn.”

Screenwriter Vanessa Taylor, whose script for “The Shape of Water” was hardly that picture’s strong point, has extracted a family melodrama from J.D. Vance’s book. Our protagonist, J.D. (Gabriel Basso), is a smart cookie trying to deal with his half-baked family – most especially his true-gritty grandmother, Mamaw (Glenn Close), and his loving but erratic mom, Bev (Amy Adams).  J.D. has made it as far as Yale Law School, but now he faces the final hurdle of interviewing for that all-important first clerkship.

For a boy from Appalachia, this means being presentable enough to know which fork to use at a fancy dinner. Of course, he could probably just fast-forward to that scene in “Pretty Woman,” but luckily, he has a smart, gorgeous girlfriend (Frieda Pinto) who can talk him through it. But she can’t talk him through what to do when he receives a mid-meal phone call that his mom is back in the hospital, having almost OD’d.

Again.

A scene from “Hillbilly Elegy”

“Hillbilly Elegy” bounces back and forth between the grown-up J.D.’s travails and those of his young teen self in the late ‘90s.  It’s a tired, distracting device that drains us of whatever empathy we might’ve felt for J.D. at any age. And some scenes are just pure junk – like Bev getting high on painkillers and roller-skating through the hospital where she works as a nurse.

In one of her earliest films, “Junebug,” Adams showed us she could do True-South like nobody’s business. But there’s nothing here for her to act. Just stuff to over-act.  And yes, Close looks amazing – from the mountain-momma jut of her jaw to her favorite Dollar Store t-shirt. But it’s an impersonation at best – like Mammy Yokum in a high school production of the ‘50s musical, “L’il Abner” (OK, Boomer…. I know). Then again, like Adams, given what she’s been given by the script, you want to applaud her just for showing up.

That doesn’t mean you have to show up. Or tune in. Or whatever we’re doing in these plague years.

RIP, “Hillbilly Elegy.” You’re DOA.

“Hillbilly Elegy” is available for viewing on Netflix.

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Eleanor Ringel

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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2 Comments

  1. Russell Wagner December 1, 2020 10:00 am

    Eleanor,

    I read the book and also watched the movie, and I have to humbly disagree with you. And here is why, like Vance’s position, you went to Brown. You left the South. What the film portrays is the two lives of Vance, and his difficulty in separating one from the other. Like you, I left the south to go to school in upstate NY, and there are two very separate parts of our country. As much as it is about the South, the film is about family, and changing the cycles of such family systemic problems. It does not matter, South vs North, it is more about changing the systemic cycles and breaking out (and the difficulty of breaking out when you have family members dealing with mental health and addiction issues.)

    He had to call his girlfriend to ask which fork on the left was used for the salad? Did you have to do that when you were at Brown coming from Westminster? Vance could have been a steel town boy from Pittsburgh at a Debutant Ball in Emory and still could have had similar problems.

    Your reviews are usually on point, but I think you need to rethink this one.Report

    Reply
  2. Lisa April 3, 2021 7:39 am

    I disagree with your review. If the point was to show the struggle between status quo and wanting more for a better future and how environment and people affect the outcome either positively or negatively then this hit the Mark just fine. The geography doesn’t really matter at the end of the day but I caught the distinction of the poor southern town culture and how that adds to the toughness of breaking free from the norm of little hope for a successful life. The message is relatable to anyone and that’s what I liked about it. Not north vs south, poor vs rich, but hope vs no hope Maybe Mr Howard understood this as well. It was well written and well acted. Not perfect but what is? It wasn’t full of f this and f that to get its point across either. Glenn Close and Amy Adams played their roles (as usual) with as much relativity and care to their part as possible, other actors performed well, too. We could use more movies like this nowadays.Report

    Reply

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