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Review: 'Hillbilly Elegy' looks at but not into its rural characters

Ron Howard's latest, starring Amy Adams and Glenn Close in bids for awards season trophies, rings false

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

In "Hillbilly Elegy," Ron Howard looks deep into the heart of an American family torn apart by drug use and poverty and what he sees staring back is hope. He's Ron Howard, how can he not? But that's overarching sense of optimism is part of the reason the movie never connects. 

Here we have Amy Adams and Glenn Close, in bad wigs and worse clothes, getting down and dirty in showy grabs for awards season attention. Adams is Bev, a nurse in Middletown, Ohio, a backwater town where the closed-up factories are a Springsteen song come to life. Close is Mamaw, her mother, who has a profane comeback for anything that's said in her general direction, but believes in family and tough love above all. 

Glenn Close and Amy Adams in "Hillbilly Elegy."

They yell, they kick, they scream, they fight. It's a redneck soap opera turned to 11. But Howard being Howard, there is light at the end of the tunnel, and "Hillbilly Elegy" becomes a hey-they-may-be-screwed-up-but-that's-my-family-you're-talking-about yarn about overcoming but also embracing the circumstances from whence you came. 

"Hillbilly Elegy" is told through the eyes of Bev's son J.D., who watches as his mother flails through life, losing jobs, filing through boyfriends and wrestling with heroin addiction. The story unfolds mostly in flashback, while J.D. is a student at Yale, reflecting on his past and attempting to deal with the latest incident involving his mother. You can get away and attend a fancy law school but you can never escape your past, the movie says.  

But the structure robs the story of any drama, and "Hillbilly Elegy" is reduced to a series of episodes that reinforces the very stereotypes it was attempting to shatter, or at least shed light on. J.D. (played by Owen Asztalos as a boy and Gabriel Basso as an adult) is never at risk of falling into the traps of his family, he's always destined to rise above, even though the script (based on J.D. Vance's best-selling 2016 memoir) doesn't explain the hard work he had to do to get there. "Hillbilly Elegy" is more interested in histrionics, of which there's plenty. Just don't look to it for any sense of insight.


'Hillbilly Elegy'


Rated R: for language throughout, drug content and some violence

Running time: 117 minutes

In theaters, on Netflix Nov. 24