J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” an election-year explainer to liberal America about the white underclass that fueled Donald Trump’s rise, has been reborn as blandly overbaked awards bait.
Ron Howard’s adaptation, penned by Vanessa Taylor, has mostly done away with the moralizing social examination that made Vance’s 2016 bestseller a lightning rod.
Howard’s film arrives on the heels of another election cycle without a whiff of the same analysis — Vance wrote of “learned helplessness” and “something almost spiritual about the cynicism of the community at large” — and he instead leans into the colorful and difficult characters of Vance’s family.
In the film, J.D. Vance (Gabriel Basso as an adult, Owen Asztalos as a kid) gets a call from his sister (Haley Bennett) that their mother, Bev (Amy Adams), has overdosed. Leaving his girlfriend (Freida Pinto), he drives home from Yale Law School to the decaying steel town of Middletown, Ohio. The trip brings back a flood of memories just as he’s leaving his past behind.
Some memories are better than others. Anything with his crochety, foul-mouthed Mamaw (Glenn Close), for starters, is something to behold.
It’s harder to find something to hold on to in Adams’ performance. Bev is such a loud, grating mess of fury, pain and addiction that Adams struggles to make her coherent. It might be less the fault of Adams than the prevailing high pitch of the film.