Netflix review: Glenn Close, Amy Adams chase Oscar in 'Hillbilly Elegy'

Fred Hawson

Posted at Dec 06 2020 06:26 AM

A scene from 'Hillbilly Elegy.' Handout

JD Vance (Gabriel Basso) was a law student from Yale University. He had a beautiful, smart and supportive girlfriend Usha (Frieda Pinto). One night, just as he was attending an important function which would give him an advantage for a summer internship he needed, he received a phone call from his sister Lindsey (Haley Bennett) that their mother Bev (Amy Adams) had been rushed to the hospital because of a drug overdose.

Since JD was a child (Owen Asztalos), Bev's mental status had been rendered unstable by her addiction to illegal drugs, particularly heroin. Because of her unpredictable bouts of explosive violent behavior, she could not stay in a relationship with men, nor can she hold her job as a nurse. JD chose to live with his grandmother, Bev's mother, whom he called Mamaw (Glenn Close), who was determined to see her grandson succeed in life. 

The central character is JD (as a child and as an adult), as this was based on the 2016 published memoirs of the real-life Atty. JD Vance about his roots in an Appalachian town in Kentucky. However, the highlighted performances were the delivered by the actresses who played the two women who had the biggest effects on how his life turned out -- Amy Adams and Glenn Close. These two veteran actress, both Oscars' favorite bridesmaids, went all-in their totally deglamorized portrayal of two rough and tough hillbilly women. 

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This showy role of Bev checked all the boxes for an Oscar-winning role -- mentally unstable, drug addict, single mother -- and Amy Adams really ran the whole exhausting nine-yards with this. Adams' Bev went through wildly shifting emotions sometimes within the same scene. We completely felt her destructive effect over the future of her children as she went through her whole life as this crass, selfish, irresponsible, undependable and abusive mother. 

I do not know if it was the director Ron Howard's intention, but his character Bev had no redemptive value until we learned what happened to her during the closing credits. It had been said that she graduated salutatorian and she self-supported herself through nursing school, but it was too bad that her own difficulty as a child growing up with her Mamaw and Papaw was relegated to only one flashback scene. Fleshing out Bev's prickly relationship with Mamaw would probably have done the narrative much more good, but this was sorely lacking.

Whenever Glenn Close was on the scene, she owned it with her perfectly nuanced and natural performance. You know that she was miles away from this character in real life, but as Mamaw, Close can convince us that she had that lived with that redneck hairstyle, clothes and lifestyle all her life. I am sure it took painstaking effort for Close to transform into Mamaw, but most admirably none of that effort is noticeable on that screen.

The scenes of drug-induced delinquency were not easy to watch especially when the self-destructive behavior had children as collateral damage. Asztalos's winsome portrayal of young JD and Basso's sympathetic portrayal of adult JD nevertheless made us root for him to make it out of the quicksand life had dealt him. 

However, since the story began with JD in law school, the impact of the scenes about his abused childhood had softened, since it was already obvious that he was able to rise from all that and make something of himself. 

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."

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