Glenn Close & Amy Adams pan for Oscar gold in edgy ‘Hillbilly Elegy’
Starring Amy Adams, Glenn Close & Gabriel Basso
Directed by Ron Howard
Available Nov. 24 on Netflix
Hollywood’s year-end awards race heads for the hills with director Ron Howard’s gritty adaptation of author J.D. Vance’s 2016 best-seller, featuring two top actresses digging deep for Oscar gold.
Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis recounted his hardscrabble youth in the Ohio Rust Belt and his family’s roots in rural Kentucky, where he’d often return for childhood visits. More than just a tad controversial, it drew fire from some critics, who lambasted Vance for his moralizing and his broad stereotyping of the region.
Howard sidesteps most of Vance’s musings on socioeconomics, politics and the mire of systemic working-class poverty, focusing instead on the “memoir” of the story—a powerfully personally odyssey of how Vance overcame the odds, in a world of brawling, abusive, working-class kin, and got out, got an education and earned a law degree from Yale. And Howard also focuses—wisely—on the substantial talents of his all-star leads, Amy Adams as Vance’s drug-addled mom, Bev, and Glenn Close as his flinty, defiant grandmother, Mamaw.
It’s a wild, wooly, clan-takerous melodrama with a high-class Hollywood pedigree.
With a total 13 total Oscar nominations (but no wins) between them, Adams and Close claw ferociously into their roles, as if nominations 14 and 15 may be in there somewhere—in the trashy trail of Bev’s needles and pills, Mamaw’s puffs of cigarette smoke, and the constant din of almost everyone yelling, screaming and scolding.
“Perch…and swivel!” says Mamaw, giving her upturned middle finger to someone as a parting gesture.
The movie whipsaws, in flashbacks and flash-forwards, between J.D. as a child and young teen (played by Owen Asztalos) and now-young-adult J.D. (Gabriel Basso)returning to Ohio from Yale, years later, to help clean up a mess with his druggie mom, who’s graduated from opiates to heroin.
As the two women who shaped him, Mamaw and Bev are J.D.’s hillbilly yin and yang, practically elemental forces of creation as well as destruction. They’re nurturers, but also capable of catastrophic wrath and ruin—as in one memorable scene when Bev, in a fit of fury, threatens to crash the vehicle she’s driving, with young J.D. in it, ending both of their lives.
The film suggests that both Bev and Mamaw are broken—crushed—because the American dream that once cradled them has instead crumbled around them, leaving them frustrated, cheated, angry and foraging for shards of hope.
J.D. finally goes to live with his Mamaw after Bev’s spiral of self-destruction hits rock bottom. Life with his grandmother isn’t exactly a breeze, but Mamaw shapes up J.D. with strict rules, tough love and a work ethic that points the way to his high school education and beyond.
Bev and Mamaw aren’t glamorous roles—indeed, you’ll have to search hard to find movies where Close or Adams look scragglier or act scrappier than they do here. Close (who disguised herself as a man for Albert Knobbs and vamped it up as a Disney villainesses in Cruella) disappears almost completely into her character, close to being unrecognizable beneath a tent of baggy clothing and matronly makeup. Adams has played a princess, a scientist, a scam artist, Lois Lane, a Julia Child wannabe and a number of other wide-ranging roles, but this is her first full-on junkie, digging in a motel toilet for a flushed-away needle.
And both actresses dominate the movie so completely with their ferocious performances that they eclipse Vance—and almost everything else—in his own story. Bennett (a young standout in The Girl on the Train, Thank You for Your Service and Swallow), however, makes a nice, soft counter impression as J.D.’s sister, Lindsey, giving a natural, nuanced performance as she goes about holding down a job, raising her kids and trying to hold her life together.
But the movie can be a bumpy, unpleasant ride. Watching the toxic malfunctions of J.D.’s situation, a parade of Southern culture on the skids, often just isn’t very pretty, or very enjoyable. And the theatrics of Adams and Close are sometimes so hyper-dramatic, they underline in bold type what we already can clearly see: a mountainous ash heap of awful parenting, a megadose of painful addiction and a tawdry, torn backdrop for a wrenching coming-of-age survivor’s tale.
What made Vance’s book such a hot—and hotly debated—topic was how he melded his personal story to a bold manifesto about America itself, and raised some hard questions about some complex issues. Howard—who shot for the moon in Apollo 13, reached for the stars in Solo: A Star Wars Story and won a directing Oscar for A Beautiful Mind—sticks to a much more straight-line tale about Vance, his scruffy family and his tumultuous tug of war with himself about how to reconcile who he is with how he got there—and the two women who formed the pillars of his life, for better and for worse.
It’s not the Hatfields and the McCoys, but this feisty, all-star family feud sets its own brawling benchmark for hillbillies in Hollywood, especially as it barrels into this year’s gold-plated Oscars season like a backfiring truckload of rowdy, backwoods relatives.
“Family is the only thing that means a godd*mn,” proclaims Mamaw.
If you say so, Mamaw—but it certainly doesn’t hurt to pack the truck with a best-selling book, Ron Howard, Amy Adams and Glenn Close!