"From the director of Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind" comes Hillbilly Elegy. This drama film directed by Ron Howard, written by Vanessa Taylor, and based on the 2016 memoir of the same name written by J.D. Vance. An urgent phone call pulls a Yale Law student back to his Ohio hometown, where he reflects on three generations of family history and his own future.
Published in 2016, Vance's memoir, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, is about the Appalachian values of his Kentucky family and their relation to the social problems of his hometown of Middletown, Ohio, where his mother's parents moved when they were young. The book was popularized by an interview with the author published by The American Conservative in late July 2016. The volume of requests briefly disabled the website. Halfway through the next month, The New York Times wrote that the title had remained in the top ten Amazon bestsellers since the interview's publication.
In April 2017, Imagine Entertainment won the film rights to Vance's memoir for Howard to direct. In February 2018, Taylor was hired to pen the script. In January 2019, Netflix won the rights to the film after bidding $45 million on the project. By early June, Glenn Close, Amy Adams, Gabriel Basso, Haley Bennett, Freida Pinto, and Bo Hopkins were cast. At the same time, principal photography commenced and wrapped in early August. Filming took place in Atlanta, Georgia and Middletown, Ohio under the code-name Ivan.
The film stars Close, Adams, Basso, Bennett, Pinto, and Hopkins. There's a lot of good actors in this movie, but they're given so little to do besides looking and acting like country bumpkins in hillbilly town. The two principle actresses embody their roles well but the problem is not much happens after they have been introduced as hillbillies.
Despite having a strong cast and a talented director, the film struggles to get going, and even when it eventually begins to chug along, it fails to be as exciting as it believes itself to be. Despite the best efforts of the filmmakers, the film is a few knots away from being the transformative cinema experience intended. Howard wants his film to be so much more than a mere battle between an educated man and his hillbilly family, and, at times, you can feel him getting that across. Unfortunately, the characters and sense of danger are too watered down. The film's overlapping themes and one-dimensional characters feel conspicuously flimsy, especially against the film's vivid realism and attention to graphic detail. There are moments that drag like a fouled anchor, when Howard's Hollywood sensibility gets a little schmaltzy-swelling music, philosophical points driven home with hitting-us-over-the-head-with-a-rock-like subtlety, and a bracketing story that interrupts more often than it informs. The film is an all-around disappointment. The film suffers from poor direction, an unfocused narrative, and some very underdeveloped characters. Idea-wise the film is great, but the premise is forgettable and doesn't offer much.