You hear the term “Oscar bait” thrown around in conjunction with movies such as Ron Howard’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” and the phrase seems to carry with it an air of cynicism, as if to imply the filmmakers deliberately set out to make the kind of movies that attract the interest of the Motion Picture Academy.
First, why is that such a bad thing? It’s the equivalent of an NFL team deliberately building a team with an eye towards getting to the Super Bowl, or an author striving to create a Pulitzer Prize-winning book. There are worse motives one can rely on to launch a project.
So, yes, “Hillbilly Elegy” IS the kind of movie will get Oscar’s attention, and it’s possible Glenn Close will win best supporting actress after seven acting nominations without a victory and Amy Adams will win best actress after six nominations but no wins. At the very least, they’re near locks to be nominated for their great work, as is the movie itself.
Based on J.D. Vance’s best-selling memoir of the same name from 2016, “Hillbilly Elegy” is a beautifully constructed, unforgiving, heart-tugging family epic about three generations of the Vance family, who have relocated to Middletown, Ohio, but have deep roots in the Appalachian hill country of Jackson, Kentucky. They’re the kind of family that will cuss and holler and do physical and emotional damage to one another without a second thought — but if an outsider refers to them as “rednecks,” well, that outsider will be lucky to escape with only a cold stare and a dressing-down.
“[The hills are] where my people come from,” says J.D. Vance (Gabriel Basso), who has made it all the way to Yale Law School by 2011, but can never truly break free from the hold of his family, in particular his mother Bev (Amy Adams), who was once a promising student herself but had to give up her dreams to raise her children as she battled addiction and psychological troubles. “Hillbilly Elegy” toggles back and forth from the early 2010s to the mid-1990s, where young J.D. (Owen Asztalos) is trying his best to have a normal childhood, with friends and baseball cards and schoolwork — but that’s impossible with a mother who experiences drastic and sometimes violent personality swings, one minute smiling and singing and showering her children with affection, the next smashing things and hitting and screaming at the top of her lungs. It’s a toxic, abusive environment.
In Adams’ tour de force performance, we can see the flicker of pain in Bev’s eyes any time she’s hurt or disappointed, and we know what’s coming: She’ll hurt someone else in a tragically misguided effort to mitigate her own pain. When Bev tells her son, “When I get out of [rehab], I’m going to make a real home for us,” we can tell not even Bev believes that lie any more.
On occasion, Bev’s outbursts can be comical, as when her daughter Lindsay (Haley Bennett) wants to talk to her boyfriend on Easter and says to her mom, “It’s Kevin,” and Mom replies, “I don’t care if it’s the Baby Jesus, it’s Easter goddammit, get your ass in here!” Much more often, Bev’s horrific lapses in judgment and her serial relapsing are deadly serious business. She’s her own worst enemy, as she gets fired from her job as a nurse, becomes involved in a series of questionable relationships and alienates young J.D. to the point where the boy goes to live with Bev’s mother.
Mamaw Vance is played by an almost unrecognizable Glenn Close in a masterful, screen-commanding, pitch-perfect performance. Mamaw’s a tough old bird — her favorite movie is “Terminator 2” and she’ll casually flip you a double bird and invite you to “perch and swivel” — but she’s determined to help J.D. break the generational cycle of abuse and disappointment in the family. J.D. has what it takes to really make something of himself — if his mother doesn’t drag him down with her first.
Close and Adams carry this film, but we also get outstanding work from Owen Asztalos and Gabriel Bass as the young and college-age J.D., respectively; the veteran character actor Bo Hopkins as Mamaw’s husband (yes, everyone calls him Papaw); Haley Bennett as J.D.’s older sister Lindsay, and Freida Pinto as J.D.’s supportive girlfriend, Usha, who is the best thing that has ever happened to him and he knows it.
Director Howard isn’t one for flashy tricks and gimmicks, but he displays his usual deft touch for the material, whether we see a montage of the various generations of the Vance family, dating back more than a hundred years, or when a funeral procession through town results in every single bystander stopping, doffing hat and standing silently. “Why do they do that, Mamaw?” asks young J.D. “Because we’re hill people, honey,” comes the reply. “We respect our dead.”