Hillbilly Elegy (3 stars)

Hillbilly Elegy

Amy Adams and Glenn Close steal the show in a beautiful but formulaic family drama

An idiosyncratic autobiography becomes a rather more formulaic film with safe-pair-of-hands Ron Howard behind the camera. Superb supporting performances from Amy Adams and a virtually unrecognisable Glenn Close – which seem sure to feature in any awards consideration when the time comes – grab the attention, though the focus is on a lead who feels flat by comparison.

It's based on the 2016 memoir of venture capitalist JD Vance, which explored the Appalachian values of his family and social problems of his hometown.

Vance is played by Owen Asztalos as a boy and Gabriel Basso as a young man. Raised in the struggling Middletown, Ohio, by volatile single mother Bev (Adams), who is plagued by addiction issues and bad relationship choices, JD is also close to his Kentucky-born grandparents Mamaw (Close) and Papaw (Bo Hopkins), who have their own history of abusive behaviour. Academically smart, like his ma, he manages to get out and into Yale Law School, but Bev's spiralling situation threatens to draw him right back in.

If a heartbreakingly chaotic Adams and an enjoyably gruff and potty-mouthed Close manage to vividly portray the rough edges and inherent decency of their characters, and Haley Bennett brings some welcome tenderness as JD's stalwart sister Lindsay, Basso is a considerably less compelling presence. Some lacklustre relationship drama with Freida Pinto's Usha hardly helps matters.

Despite the briefest of glimpses into the worst of times, Hillbilly Elegy feels like a watered-down version of hardship. Oscar nominee Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water) penned the screenplay, yet, with its flashbacks and lessons, the story feels too moulded. The film is beautifully shot by Maryse Alberti (Creed), who captures these flawed, flailing people through a warm, non-judgmental lens, and there's some nice stuff on forgiveness. But by shaping the source material into an accessible, unashamedly Hollywood take on events it may have shed some insight along the way.

Available to watch in selected Scottish and Welsh cinemas from Wed 11 Nov and on Netflix from Tue 24 Nov.

Hillbilly Elegy

  • 3 stars
  • 2020
  • US
  • 1h 56min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Ron Howard
  • Cast: Amy Adams, Haley Bennett, Glenn Close

Domestic drama examining the American dream across three generations of an Appalachian family.