By Daniel Occelli (Mexico City)
“Where we come from is who we are but we choose every day who we become.”
Hillbilly Elegy stars Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Gabriel Basso and Haley Bennett as a dysfunctional family from the Midwest, taking the audience through various time periods exploring their struggle as a low-class uneducated white family living in rural America. This is the newest addition to Ron Howard’s filmography, one of the biggest directors in Hollywood behind films like Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Frost/Nixon and even a Star Wars film. He’s a great producer of big blockbusters with a huge awards pull and he tends to make amazing, thrilling, touching films; which makes me wonder… what the hell happened here?
This film has almost nothing going for it, the directing is bland and sloppy, the writing needs a lot of polishing, and the acting is a little too much, the film drags on forever and the resolution is dull and uninspired. The film starts up with a great set-up, but it slows down and it goes downhill from there throughout the second and third act. I was really excited about this one, I really was, but there is not a single spark of originality or purpose behind it.
Let’s really get into all the reasons why I disliked this film. First of all, the writing, the film is trying way too hard to make us care about this family when it never builds on their relation, it revolves around the idea of family as a right, when in reality family is a privilege. You can’t ask me to understand the sacrifices J.D. is willing to make for his mother when everything he has is because he ran away from her, this is how toxic family relations are and the film fetishizes the idea of loving your family “just because” and that’s not how it should be. The script also jumps between time periods but has some discrepancies that take you out of the film, for example we see a brand new bag of chips in the 1990’s or we hear diegetic songs unrelated to the time period, it really ruins the experience it’s trying to create.
Also the script is terrible at building tension, characters suddenly snap into these overacted scenes trying to be extremely emotional with absolutely no buildup, so it’s never earned. They are all going for their Oscar nominee scene and it never pays off, especially Amy Adams, she is truly terrible in this film, she was trying too hard to get award recognition for this Oscar-baity role and it never works, she usually shines in the more subtle roles, this was an exaggeration from start to finish and it was never enjoyable to watch. The directing is messy, the film never understands its nonlinear narrative, so it just decides to jump from timeline to timeline with no regard for the rhythm of the narrative. What’s the result? You have a hard time understanding exactly what their showing you, or they hint to exactly what they are about to show you in a very obvious way, that’s why the film feels like its 4 hours long, it never finds its rhythm.
Another big issue I had was the main character, he’s never likeable, he’s always annoying, whether he’s a child fighting his mom or a pouty adult, you never feel connected to him, he’s supposed to be the center of the story, but his story is extremely dull, if they had focused on the daughter’s arc it would’ve made for a way more interesting story.
As for more nitpicky aspects I disliked, I have to say the song choices were terrible, sometimes the obvious choice is the right choice, and there’s nothing obvious about a bunch of low-class dads in the Midwest listening to Foster the People at a BBQ whilst talking about rehab. There are a lot of choices like this all around the film.
Finally I would like to talk about some of the things I liked about the film, because they were a few aspects I enjoyed, especially Glenn Close, her performance was amazing, she was funny and sweet and relatable, she actually created a character around this terrible script and built a personality we can root for throughout the movie. Haley Bennett had some bright spots too, not enough to save her character but at least she’s likeable. The film looks good and it does have a nostalgic feeling towards rural America. And last but not least I will give some huge praise to one aspect of the film, the score, what a beautiful masterpiece Hans Zimmer created, even with all the shade I’ve been throwing at this film I have to say, if this score doesn’t get Oscar recognition it will be outrageous, this score is one of Hans Zimmer’s most inspiring work, and it has nothing to do in this terrible attempt of a movie.
At the end of the day this film did nothing for me, it’s a dull, forgettable, Oscar-baity movie that sends the wrong message. It has terrible performances, uninspired directing and an insult of a script, but one of the best film scores I’ve heard in a while. I will give Hillbilly Elegy a 3.5/10.