Movie Review: Hillbilly Elegy (2020) - A tense drama with riveting performances lives in its tragedy

The coming-of-age drama Hillbilly Elegy is the latest addition to a catalog of films centered on inherited trauma, from parent to child. It unfolds with a deep affection for this wounded family but perhaps loses momentum with scenes from the past overtaking the present. The brightest parts of the film are in the current timeline with a grown-up Gabriel Basso playing J.D with compassion and strength, and his burgeoning relationship with Usha leaping off the screen. There is no doubt this family cares deeply through their scars, but perhaps with too many flashbacks our attachment to these characters remains at a distance.

Based on the 2016 memoir by J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy is a recollection of his experiences growing up in the Appalachians with a stone-faced grandma, a mother with substance abuse issues, and an achingly sad family history. The narration tells us this is a close-knit community in Middletown, Ohio, as sunrays sift casually through the trees, suggesting a calmness that belies what is happening to this family. We begin in 1997 with the family traveling home after some time away. Bev (Amy Adams) and her children, younger J.D. (Owen Asztalos) and Lindsay (Haley Bennett) live just down the street from Mamaw (Glenn Close) and Papaw (Bo Hopkins). In the present (2011), J.D., now played by Gabriel Basso, attends a dinner with his Yale classmates in the hopes of landing a summer internship. He is out of place amongst the privileged and receives a call from Lindsay that Bev is in the hospital. She has been using again and overdosed.

As J.D. makes the ten-hour drive home, leaving behind his girlfriend Usha (Freida Pinto), and recalls growing up as a teenager with his family who experienced heartbreak and tragedy all too often. Through flashbacks to 1997, we see Bev struggled to hold her job as a nurse, suffering from relapses into pills, alcohol, and later heroin. When Papaw passes away, Bev struggles to overcome the loss and parades in the street with blood streaking down her arms while shouting to the heavens in a drug-induced outburst. She has various relationships with men, struggling to survive on her own, and relies on her Mamaw to pick up the pieces while she finds someone else to care for her. But as J.D. and Lindsay try to come up with a solution for where to put Bev in the present day, with little money to spare, it’s clear that changes in the family dynamic are necessary.

This film is about the lengths children will go to for their family, no matter the upbringing. J.D. values everything about his mother, animated user, caring nurse, raging daughter, and chooses to be her life raft when she can't keep her head above water. The reason the present scenes are so compelling is that we’re rooting for J.D. to move forward in life but is always fighting for Bev's livelihood. In a captivating scene in 1997, Bev and J.D. fight in a car that leads to him running out into the house of a stranger and Bev dragging him down the front steps before the cops show up and intervene. It’s a powerful moment that shows us the unity of the family, particularly when Mamaw and Papaw arrive on the scene, but also J.D.’s relinquishing of his childhood for the sake of helping his mother.

In the present day, his relationship with Usha is gorgeous, but he shies away from revealing his tortured history. How can he tell her his sudden departure is because his mother overdosed on heroin? The relationship with Usha offers a stark contrast between caring for Bev and the new, supportive relationship he adores. It’s lovely watching J.D. and Usha laugh over the pronunciation of syrup toward the end of the film that I wished we had more of these scenes to counter the horrors of the family’s past.

Hillbilly Elegy plays with time frequently, allowing flashbacks to inform a tragic upbringing, alongside Mamaw’s struggles to raise J.D. Some of the film's most touching sequences involve Mamaw deciding to raise J.D. when Bev became too unfit and struggling to feed him with her limited income. She always ensures he has more food than her, and when he returns home with the highest score in his math test, she hides her pride, shuffling to the living room to gaze at the test in awe. Perhaps she is finally doing the right thing. However, the film may have been more measured had the flashback scenes from 1997 been condensed. The most immediate storyline focuses on J.D. in the present helping Bev find a rehab facility. But when we flashback to 1997, it feels like we might be repeating tragedies. Director Ron Howard and Editor James Wilcox instead might've focussed more on how J.D. is drawn into saving his family with his future at stake, rather than returning to yet another tragic moment from his past. Further, a simpler score by Hans Zimmer may have helped ground the film.

The performances are, of course, incredible. Watching Gabriel Basso attempting to pay for Bev’s admission into a facility with four different credit cards is especially heart-breaking. The actor doesn’t have heated moments like his co-stars, but Basso’s ability to maintain composure under immense pressure is the film's strength. Glenn Close, of course, crackles and hisses under Mamaw’s curly grey hair, while Amy Adams is incredibly raw as the tortured Bev. She bounces between emotions easily, highlighting what might be a personality disorder, and managing to exude warmth and sincerity when she needs J.D.

Hillbilly Elegy wears its heart openly for audiences to get a taste of J.D.’s upbringing. But what Richard Linklater’s Boyhood understood is that while we need to see the titular Mason growing before our eyes and experiencing the world, we also need to see his mother, Olivia, in her relationships with men to see how it affected Mason. Hillbilly Elegy may have benefited from taking a similar approach to the storytelling, adhering to a chronological structure, and opening the world beyond J.D. so we see Bev in her relationships and how they disintegrated, leading to relapse. But this film is gorgeous to watch and a masterclass in performance. It’s often uncomfortable seeing this family unfold, but it’s an honest story about ambition, adulthood, and forgiveness.

Now available to stream on Netflix.