How long are you willing to wait to see hope in a film? Hillbilly Elegy certainly pushes boundaries. While there is undeniably hope hinted at from the beginning, Ron Howard’s (Beatles: Eight Days a Week) latest tale of growing up is a long slog to the final moments of (qualified) triumph. Given that this is based on Vance’s memoir, I don’t know whether to be impressed with Howard’s guts to lay it out in relative order to heighten the result, or lambast him for the dark road travelled to get there.
To be honest, despite the truly great performances by Glenn Close (The Wife), Amy Adams (Vice), and the older/younger versions of Vance in Gabriel Basso (The Kings of Summer) and Owen Asztalos (The Flight Attendant), I just can’t recommend this experience. It was frustrating, dark, sad, angering. It is an unflinching look at poverty, abuse, and addiction, as well as the generational impact of those challenges. Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water) adapted Vance’s book with harsh honesty, allowing characters to be much less than perfect but not without humanity and love. But I watched the entire film with clenched jaw and angry at the situation and, just as often, the characters.
If you can handle that kind of tension or, now knowing that there is a end point that isn’t utterly tragic, and you want to see some amazing transformations and performances, give this a shot. But go in feeling strong and strap in to have that mood challenged. In other words, I am struggling to recommend this film not because it isn’t done well, but because it is. You have to ask yourself if you’re ready for that.