2021 Oscar Reviews: Hillbilly Elegy

For the past several years, I’ve attempted to watch as many Oscar-nominated films as possible, and for the past two years I have written reviews of each film and posted them to this blog. Alas, I always run out of time and cannot see everything. This year’ ceremony has been delayed, and I started reviewing before nominations were announced, giving me a decent chance at wide coverage. Today we cover…

Hillbilly Elegy

Two nominations for Best Supporting Actress (Glenn Close) and Best Makeup and Haristyling

I was hoping to not watch this movie until I’d read the book, which has been sitting on my very long to-read list for a few years now. But, alas, the Academy does not wait for me, and so I bit the bullet and watched this one early. When I mentioned the list of nominees I still needed to get through to my husband, he scowled at Hillbilly Elegy. Ugh, he had no interest. Then he muttered something about it not being about REAL southerners, or something like that. I wasn’t sure what he was talking about, but the conversation moved on in another direction. Yesterday when he left for a long run, I settled in to watch this one alone, knowing he had no interest. Alas, he rolled his ankle and returned early, about 30 minutes into the film, and reluctantly sat down to watch with me. So far, the film seemed fine, so I asked what he’d been referring to. What did he mean by “real southerners” when the film isn’t even in the south? It’s in western Ohio. Oh, well real Appalachians or rural Americans, then. He started googling it while I kept watching the movie, and came back with a bunch of details about the authors’ arguments as to hillbilly culture and how it affects political rural political leanings. I blinked at the TV screen. So far, we were just watching a straightforward memoir. I wasn’t sure how a guy’ s straightforward recollection of his childhood could do all the bad things my spouse had brought up, but we curiously kept watching. By the end of the movie, we hadn’t really hit on any of the same objectionable content my husband had cited. So my best guess, as someone who has not yet read the book, hasn’t yet read the criticisms (trying my best to hold off until I’ve read it myself), and can only judge the movie at this point, is that perhaps the filmmakers made a movie very different from the book. Maybe the book was full of political commentary supported by childhood anecdotes, and the movie said, “No, let’s drop the part where we learn things and just focus on the anecdotes.” If I’m correct, is this a good or a bad thing? I don’t know. Can’t really say until I read the book.

Either way, what I have to judge and review here is only what I can see: a stand-alone movie, without any context of the book. That being said, this film was pretty good. I was excited at the very beginning, when we start during a visit back home to his mom’s childhood home in Appalachia (eastern Kentucky, to be exact). I have a very soft spot in my heart for Appalachia. I’m a mountain girl at heart, and Appalachia will always be one of the most beautiful places in the world to me. Of course, I’m under no romantic illusion that it isn’t also one of the poorest most-neglected places in America, and the butt of many ugly stereotypes. The film begins by driving along the beautiful Appalachian hollers and hills, passing past modest and at times decrepit homes. This was good stuff! We meet the Appalachian family of our protagonist, assembled in the yard at some sort of family gathering. Our kid goes off to a watering hole to swim. Glenn Close is there looking like the frumpiest country Meemaw on the planet. We learn she got knocked up at 13 and fled north. And then… We left Appalachia and never went back. The rest of the film is in the Midwest. Still in a poor rural town, sure. But… still… not in Appalachia. Which makes me wonder why the hell the book features a beautiful rusty mountain barn on the cover (ok, I’m judging the book after all), and why we’re making a whole movie (and presumably whole book) about hillbillies who aren’t actually hillbillies. Aren’t we just conflating all rural people at this point? I dunno.

Anyway, once you get over that hurdle, the film is still pretty good. Occasionally a bit heavy-handed and overly literal but it was still a well-told story with solid performances and a great mix of both touching and traumatic moments. The big shining star in this movie is of course Glenn Close, the ever-glamorous Hollywood movie star Glenn Close, playing the grandmother. Between some fantastic acting, and some fantastic hair and make-up, it was very difficult to believe this was Glenn Close. What could Glenn Close (GLENN CLOSE!!!) possibly know of poor rural life? Has she ever even met a character like this lady she’s playing? Who even knows, but the transformation was incredible, and both nominations are well -deserved here. I commented on how amazing the transformation was to my southern spouse, who nodded in agreement, “She looks like my Meemaw.” She looks like EVERYBODY’s Meemaw, which is the whole point. Yesterday I did a review about Emma, which was nominated for costumes and hair/makeup but nothing else, and I said they did a fantastic job making everyone look the part, but somehow totally missed the mark on capturing the actual soul of the story. Well, this film was the opposite of that. Yeah, Close LOOKS like she just wandered over after bingo and is going to cook up some fried bologna before sitting down on a plaid recliner to watch her stories, but she also acts like it. I was particularly impressed by scenes where she has her grandson JD (our protagonist) come live with her, and we finally get to see her laying down the law. It was a solid performance, and one which helped lend texture to an otherwise black-and-white story.

The thing that is NOT good about Close’s role here, though, is that we’re supposed to believe she’s so close in age to her daughter, played by Amy Adams (who also did an ok job seeming kinda frumpy. and gave off a strong Tonya Harding vibe.) Close left the holler when she was a pregnant 13 year old. At some point kinda late we learn her character has a sister, though I don’t think we ever mention her at any other point so who knows that the deal is there. But in a flashback we see the two sisters as kids, and they look pretty close in age. You’re telling me 72 year old Glenn Close is supposed to be just 15 years older than 46 year old Amy Adams? Especially when we’ve gone out of our way to make her look like crap? Yeah, I dunno. On the other hand, during the closing credits we saw photos of the real people and they all looked pretty close, so… who knows.

I’ll end by saying it’s a good year for grandmas! Two of our five Best Supporting Actress nominees (Glenn Close and You Yuh-jung) are nominated for playing strong quirky grandmas in a dysfunctional rural family. Of the performances I’ve seen so far, I’d say they’re both in a dead heat to win the top prize. Do folks ever tie in the Oscars? if so, I hope these two Meemaws get to raise the statue together, because they both deserve it.

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