Hillbilly Elegy has everything awards season voters seem to want in a best picture contender.

It’s a film with A-list actors giving showy performances in an adaptation of a true story from an Academy Award winning director set in the recent past that gives insight into the current political climate.

There’s plenty of golden reasons why Netflix paid $45 million in January for the rights to this “Oscar bait” feature, but none of them add up to terrific cinema.

Based on the 2016 memoir of the same name from J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy follows a Yale law student returning home to his poor family in Ohio after a family emergency while reflecting on his youth growing up with his sister and drug-addled mother.

Director Ron Howard teams with screenwriter Vanessa Taylor to present the film both in the present and alternating flashbacks, which would work better if they were shot and framed in more distinctly separate ways. As it is, the retelling of J.D.’s youth feels more like a series of loosely constructed vignettes than a cohesive storyline driven by character development.

Perhaps that’s the fatal flaw of a film like Hillbilly Elegy, or perhaps its point altogether, that no characters truly change all that much from beginning to end. Likeable characters at the beginning of the film are still likeable; troubled characters rarely seem to redeem themselves beyond a stereotypical picking themselves up by the bootstraps and working hard motif.

Melodrama is laid on thick, almost to the point of cable television special with heavy orchestral scores to reinforce mood.

The lackluster story – and especially the underwhelming script – do no favors to Academy Award nominee Amy Adams, who is truly going for it as J.D.’s drug addicted mother Bev. It’s an unrestrained performance that doesn’t have an expected signature monologue of rage or anguish, but there’s a demonstrative excitement bordering on anxiety to her work here that feels a touch overdone at moments.

Glenn Close – who holds a record for the most Oscar nominations for an actress without a win – is sure to be a major contender for Best Supporting Actress in the film’s best performance as J.D.’s Mamaw. Her tough exterior combined with a winning heart of gold make Close’s work the most complicated yet rewarding effort in Hillbilly Elegy with Mamaw often serving as the stand-in for the audience’s perspective on events or the one true character viewers find themselves rooting for regardless of the situation.

The lead role of J.D. – played as a youth by Owen Asztalos and as an adult by Gabriel Basso – is especially disjointed. While Asztalos has remarkable chemistry with both Close and Adams and is largely effective in endearing himself to the audience, Basso’s standoffish, rather cold demeanor provides a stark contrast to the character that makes it harder to get behind his point of view from an audience perspective.

Haley Bennett is solid in an underwritten turn as J.D.’s older sister Lindsay, providing strength to her family when they need it but keeping her distance as much as possible to protect her own children from their grandmother. Ironically enough, Bennett is also featured in another Netflix adaptation of a critically acclaimed novel released in 2020, the far superior Western noir The Devil All The Time starring Tom Holland. 

Slumdog Millionaire actress Freida Pinto sadly serves as essentially window dressing in a throwaway role as J.D.’s girlfriend Usha.

A film designed to win awards is surely going to be on the short list in any number of categories given the relative lack of competition this year, although it’s likely that only Close plays any serious threat to win.

There’s plenty of opportunity for Howard and Taylor to provide social or political commentary with the film, but by in large they simply don’t. Hillbilly Elegy is aggressively safe, spelling things out for audiences far more than needed and telegraphing events incredibly transparently so there lacks suspense or dramatic tension.

In its intention not to offend, Hillbilly Elegy doesn’t say what the filmmaker or Vance himself truly mean which provides for an easier watch, something Netflix may be going after here.

Along with the upcoming Mank from director David Fincher, Hillbilly Elegy is one of Netflix’s biggest releases of 2020 and will certainly be one of the year’s more talked about films regardless of where it ends up on awards season ballots, making it a worthwhile watch for ardent cinephiles already subscribed to the streaming service.

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