Hillbilly Elegy





Amy Adams and Glenn Close light up ol’ Kentucky in Ron Howard’s sun-dappled Southern melodrama.

Hillbilly Elegy

Amy Adams


You think you’ve seen Amy Adams play every colour of the spectrum and then along comes Hillbilly Elegy. One might have thought that talk of another Oscar nomination was just a default prediction. The actress has been nominated six times already, but she’s never packed such a high-voltage, selfless turn as she does in Ron Howard’s family melodrama set in the heart of good ol’ Kentucky. Based on the memoir of the writer and venture capitalist J.D. Vance, it’s a home-grown, corn-fed soap opera in which nobody actually uses the term “poor white trash.” Vance, played by Gabriel Basso as an adult, tells us on the soundtrack that, “where we come from is who we are,” and for our narrator it’s not even a mixed blessing. He is who he is in spite of his fun-lovin’ Mama, a tempestuous addict who put herself through nursing school as a single mom. She gave everything to her kids, then, in middle-age, she threatens to destroy J.D.’s chances for a better life.


The film starts conventionally enough with honey-hued images of rural Kentucky, the camera gliding past home fronts, emulating the upbeat opening of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Minutes later, J.D. is being drowned by bullies in a picturesque lake and the rough form of the film begins to shake itself into relief. Various family members are introduced and at the centre of them all is the feisty, caring Bev Vance, played by Amy Adams. There’s also Bev’s mom, the cussin’, chain-smoking Mamaw, lit up with fire and brimstone by Glenn Close, another unrewarded, multi-Oscar nominee (this film would make it her eighth nod). There is a lot of acting going on, but once one has adjusted to the wigs, make-up and added pounds of flesh, the drama begins to take shape. Ron Howard has always been a terrific story-teller and, wisely, he hands the crown jewels to Amy Adams and Glenn Close, who essentially steer the ship. Another sage move was to cast Gabriel Basso at the centre of the fireworks, as the much-needed ballast of a tale that seems to ricochet from one damned thing to another. Basso brings a reined-in credibility where it is most needed, as the story jack-knifes off the central reservation and J.D. attempts to fit in at Yale, where he discovers he doesn’t know the difference between Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.


As the film cuts back and forth across time, Bev’s irrational behaviour becomes more pronounced, and the nurturing figure we saw at the start begins to unravel. In the present, J.D. is blessed with the calming influence of a fellow student played by Freida Pinto (she’s 36, but looks much younger), although J.D. is afraid to tell her the truth about his family. Likewise, Ron Howard – working from a screenplay by Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water) – keeps his cards close to his chest, allowing the drama to build up like a tidal bore against a levee. It’s a method that pays dividends, when what is merely colourful turns into something deeper and gut-churning. But it’s Amy Adams and Glenn Close who spark the emotional touch paper, providing selfless turns as two women struggling to keep their heads above water. The film is not as wrenching as, say, August: Osage County (2013), the last word in thespian histrionics. However, for devotees of Glenn and Amy, they’re in for a treat.




Cast: Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Gabriel Basso, Haley Bennett, Freida Pinto, Bo Hopkins, Owen Asztalos, Stephen Kunken, Jesse C. Boyd, Jonothon Mitchell, Keong Sim, Morgan Gao, David Atkinson, Bill Winkler, Cheryl Howard.


Dir Ron Howard, Pro Brian Grazer, Ron Howard and Karen Lunder, Screenplay Vanessa Taylor, from the memoir by J.D. Vance, Ph Maryse Alberti, Pro Des Molly Hughes, Ed James D. Wilcox, Music Hans Zimmer and David Fleming, Costumes Virginia Johnson, Sound Grant Elder, Dialect coach Nadia Venesse.


Imagine Entertainment-Netflix.

115 mins. USA. 2020. Rel: 24 November 2020. Available on Netflix. Cert. 15.