Released: 24th November
Seen: 7th December
At the time that I write this, the actress with the most Oscar nominations without a win is Glenn Close with seven nominations to her name. Seven times Glenn’s had the chance to be handed that little gold statue that is a symbol of Hollywood’s respect and seven times she’s been denied what she probably should’ve gotten back in the 80s. Following her at six nominations is Amy Adams, another person who probably should’ve gotten the gold at some point by now.
It’s clear that the two of them are due to get that recognition and for a while people have been speculating that Glenn might try to land one with her upcoming screen adaptation of the Sunset Boulevard musical and that Amy was pretty much inevitably going to get one at some point… I guess I just hoped they wouldn’t resort to obvious Oscar bait in order to cross that finish line.
Hillbilly Elegy, based on the book of the same name by J.D. Vance, is the story of J.D.’s (Gabriel Basso) childhood as he grew up in the south with his drug addicted mother Bev (Amy Adams) and his cantankerous grandma Bonnie (Glenn Close). Throughout his childhood J.D. has to deal with the life that he’s been given by being born into a poor family during an opioid crisis and turn his life around despite the obstacles that his family will throw his way.
Recently there was a controversy in Australia about a series called Struggle Street, namely that it was nothing but poverty porn that took those at the lowest rung of society and put them on TV in a way that said ‘be thankful this isn’t you’ and that’s the feeling I had throughout the duration of Hillbilly Elegy. The lurid way everything is portrayed is just upsetting, as is the way that blame seems to be solely thrown on Bev for her addiction and Bonnie for her poverty without looking at the societal issues that could lead to these things.
Hillbilly Elegy is all very surface level, like there’s no time to deal with the actual issues that could lead these people into this situation. It’s poverty porn with no real attempt to understand anything that’s going on, which is stunning since this is based on a book by one of the family members so you would think they might try to explain why their family is like this. Nope, apparently J.D. wants everyone to know that his family are fuckups for no reason other than they are screw-ups. These things don’t have easy answers, but this film tries to pretend that it does.
Jumping back and forth in time, we’re constantly reminded that the only one who really changed and grew over time was our lead and meanwhile, his poor southern family are the same bad people they’ve always been until the very last second (and even that is relegated to a text card at the end). It just feels mean spirited, pinning all the blame on people who clearly were born into a bad situation who wasn’t able to fight against the systemic issues.
Basically, Hillbilly Elegy tries to say “Hey, pull yourself up by your bootstraps and you’ll get out of this situation”, except no one seems to have told the writer that ‘Pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ is a nonsense phrase that literally means to do something stupid and useless (Spoilers, you can’t actually pull yourself up by your bootstraps, it’s an objectively stupid image that people have turned into something inspiring even though it’s meant to be a joke)
The redeeming factors of Hillbilly Elegy are Glenn and Amy… shocker, the two women with a dozen Oscar nominations between them are good at acting and pull off some genuinely great performances even when they have stupid dialogue and baffling scenes. It will not shock me when one or both of them get nominated at the Oscars next year (god that’s going to be a weird ceremony) but I will be shocked if they win. They’re great performances in the sense that all Oscar bait performances are, they show a broad range of extreme emotions and can occasionally impress, but the characters themselves aren’t exactly memorable.
Hillbilly Elegy isn’t good, but it’s not the worst thing. It’s just pure Oscar bait with an uninteresting take on a serious problem and surface level solutions to go along with it. A few great performances can make it kinda watchable, but some of the scenes they’re asked to do are laughably bad. It’s sad that in a few months that this film might be what gets two iconic actresses their spot in Hollywood awards history, because that’ll be the only thing about this film anyone’ll ever talk about again.