With its woodland-set opening scenes of kids running around and families hanging out on cabin porches, you could be forgiven for thinking that Hillbilly Elegy is an outdoorsy coming-of-age tale. However, that’s a picture that soon fades. What follows is a film about the complexity of family ties, and how they ultimately form who we are. It’s not light viewing, and it has its flaws, but for the most part it was a decent watch.
The film follows J.D. Vance (Gabriel Basso), a Yale Law student pulled back to his hometown following his mother’s overdose. Whilst there, he is forced to confront family demons in order to figure out what kind of future he really wants.
Hillbilly Elegy is a rough trip down memory lane
It’s not exactly cheery viewing, let’s put it that way. Everyone that the film revolves around has had a hard time. Some of it is their own fault, but most of it isn’t. What we get to see throughout is why these people are the way they are; what the circumstances surrounding their upbringing were and what effect that had on them as they grew older. For me, this was one of Hillbilly Elegy’s main downfalls as it tried to do this for too many characters. There were points where it didn’t seem to know who should be its protagonist, getting lost in its indecision instead. Had it just focused on the history of one character, I feel the general impact would’ve been far greater. Instead, we got one that was quite fleshed out, and then another two who were only half-cooked at best.
Performances padded out thin writing when given the chance
Glenn Close had some of the best lines and she didn’t squander them, however the film wasted her presence. When she was on-screen, the film came alive, but that didn’t happen nearly often enough.
Amy Adams put in a phenomenal turn, although I fear it may be overlooked in comparison to the rest of her body of work thanks to how this has been received. Bev was a very flawed individual. She wanted to be a good mother and was fierce in her attempts to be, but she was also very cruel as that was all she’d ever known herself. Adams’ performance made it more straightforward to empathise with her character when she really wasn’t deserving of it, which hammered home the film’s familial themes even more.
Families are messy
What Hillbilly Elegy nailed was the idea that family can be the thing that spurs us on and holds us back all at once. It can be paradoxical. They are a vehicle to help us be all that we can be whether that is through support or wanting to escape certain cycles. At the same time, we are pulled back when things happen, often regardless of whether we want that to be the case or not. Here, we got to see a young man who clearly wanted something better than what he’d grown up with, whilst struggling to see past where he’d come from and who the world perceived him to be as a result.
Obviously this struggle was something that played a significant part in the film, but there is a scene early on that I think really captures the essence of it all. It carries an uncomfortable air as it plays out, and is made worse by the switch to a shot that provides a first-person perspective of what follows. It essentially forces you into J.D’s shoes in a room that he doesn’t feel like he belongs in, and is instead a spectacle to entertain the other guests.
Flawed like its characters
Whilst it’s far from a perfect film, Hillbilly Elegy has certainly got things going for it. Its performances, when utilised, help you to feel for characters that have a lot to unpack, despite them being a tad under-developed overall. The film has a real ‘messy family’ vibe that I think it has a good understanding of, but as such it provides few lighter moments, which it perhaps needed more of. In my eyes, it does a decent job of depicting everyday people doing what they can to get by in a way that they have been for generations, as well as showing the real fear and internal conflict that comes with leaving it behind in pursuit of something better.