First Reviews In For 'Hillbilly Elegy,' Now At Area Theaters

Nov 10, 2020

Hillbilly Elegy, Ron Howard's $45-million adaptation of J.D. Vance's best-selling memoir about growing up in Middletown, opens Tuesday night at Xscape Theaters Northgate 14 and Cinema 10 in Middletown, called a "Midwestern backwater" town in the Variety review. 

The movie starring Glenn Close, Amy Adams, Gabrielle Basso, Haley Bennett and Bo Hopkins also will open Wednesday, Nov. 11, at the Mariemont Theatre and RJ Cinema Eastgate near Eastgate Mall.

Oscar-winning director Howard shot most of the movie in Georgia in 2019 before shooting the final week in Middletown in August last year.  Most of the scenes in the trailer were shot in Georgia.

In Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, published in June 2016, Vance described how his maternal grandmother (Close) stepped in to raise him due to his mother's (Adams) drug addictions. It's a very unglamorous role for Close, who plays a mean, chain-smoking old woman who likes to wear oversized T-shirts and pajama pants.

Glenn Close as "Mamaw" about to film a scene getting groceries from her car on Harrison Street in Middletown in August 2019.
Credit John Kiesewetter / WVXU

The 2003 Middletown High School graduate, who served in Iraq before earning his law degree, wrote in the book about growing up among poor working class "hillbillies" in the Southwestern Ohio steel town.

In her Hollywood Reporter review, Sheri Linden writes: "Director Ron Howard and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (Divergent, The Shape of Water) generally avoid Vance's more sweeping, and controversial, cultural judgments about poor whites of Appalachian lineage and zero in on the family aspect of the story."

Glenn Close as the stooped Mamaw waits for cameras to roll.
Credit John Kiesewetter / WVXU

Variety's Owen Gleiberman describes the plot as J.D. (Gabriel Basso), in the midst of auditioning for a summer internship break from Yale Law School, "goes back to Middletown, Ohio, the Midwestern backwater he’s from, and jump through hoops to get his mother into rehab … only to learn that Bev has no interest in going into rehab."

Linden praises the "take-no-prisoners performances of Amy Adams and Glenn Close" for "tearing it up with full-throttled cursing and maternal freak-outs by the bushel."

But she didn't like the opening voiceover narration that "leans a bit too heavily on aw-shucks declarations about 'my people,' as  J.D. refers to the hill country of Kentucky where his great-grandmother still lived and a large group of relatives gathered each summer ... J.D. believes that his family, transplanted to Middletown, in southern Ohio, two generations before him, is cut off not just from its country roots but from a sense of hope."

She praised Howard for not romanticizing his characters or packaging "their struggles in neat bromides or cornpone redemption… There are moments that clang off-key or land with the flatness of cliché, but there are also sharp observations across the urban-rural divide."

Amy Adams (left) talks to fans on Harrison Street in August 2018.
Credit John Kiesewetter / WVXU

Gleiberman writes that Close "is acting up an award-worthy storm (her performance is actually quite meticulous)." It's an "American Gothic redneck soap opera, built to showcase the cussed flamboyance of characters like Mamaw (Close), the foul-mouthed, mean-as-a-rattlesnake hill-country grandmother who raised J.D. (with her mottled skin, oversize glasses, and unflinching scowl, she’s like Ma Barker meets Tyler Perry’s Madea meets Paul’s grandfather in A Hard Day’s Night), and Bev, who's your basic, everyday working-class addict and self-hating loser — a woman who wears her despair on her pasty, bloated face.

"You could put it another way, of course, and say that Glenn Close and Amy Adams, in a movie like this one, are all uglied up for the their Oscar close-ups. It's the acting-as-transformation-into-human-troll school. Except that the actors, in this case, hit true notes," Gleiberman says.

The cast includes Haley Bennett (The Girl On The Train, The Equalizer), Helen Abell (Stranger Things, Orange Is The New Black), Ethan Suess (Fear The Walking Dead, Scorpion, Alex Inc.), Amy Parrish (Black Lightning, Homeland, House of Cards, Stanger Things), Frieda Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire, The Path), Sunny Mabrey (Snakes On A Plane), Bo Hopkins (Dynasty, Murder She Wrote) and Jesse C. Boyd (MacGyver, Gone).

The Middletown scenes were filmed on Harrison Street in the 100-year-old Park Place neighborhood, two blocks away from Vance's McKinley Street home.