LONDON: With a cast that boasts Glenn Close, Amy Adams, Gabriel Basso and Freida Pinto, and with Academy Award-winner Ron Howard in the director’s chair, “Hillbilly Elegy” had an air of Oscar contender about it before the first trailer had even dropped. And with a Netflix distribution deal set to bring it a COVID-19-primed home audience, all the movie really had to do to realize a lot of that Oscar hype was just be, you know, close to watchable. Sadly, this star-spangled adaptation of J. D. Vance’s 2016 memoir manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
The night before Vance’s crucial interview at Yale Law School, he gets a call from home. His mother, Bev (Adams), is in the hospital thanks to her ongoing battle with heroin addiction, so J. D. (Basso) rushes back to Ohio, leaving his supportive girlfriend Usha (Pinto) wondering what could make him risk his big Yale shot for a cross-country drive to the Appalachian part of Kentucky and the family he’s been so desperate to leave behind.
The movie zips between time periods, showing the family’s impoverished history, Bev’s blossoming problems with addiction, and J.D.’s increasing reliance on his grandmother, played with absolute relish by Glenn Close.
There’s supposed to be an element of social commentary here, presumably, but Howard leans too heavily on ‘yokel’ stereotypes and shortcut tropes, and while Close has plenty to do — she plays Mamaw with equal parts staggering maternal ferocity and anger at her own economic shortcomings — her character is only in the movie so much.
The gifted Adams is woefully underserved, and while Basso and Pinto make a likable couple to root for, theirs is not the relationship we want to know more about. The root of the cycle of poverty, abuse, crime and societal restriction is where the intrigue lies. But “Hillbilly Elegy” simply sidesteps them all, for the most part. Howard paints their effects in vivid, skillful color, but we never explore anything beyond that. It’s an unsatisfying feeling, and one that dominates the viewing experience.