2020 | rated R | starring Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Gabriel Basso, Owen Asztalos, Frieda Pinto, Haley Bennett | directed by Ron Howard | 1 hr 56 mins |
An adaptation of J. D. Vance’s bestselling memoir Hillbilly Elegy was greenlit in that very brief period after Donald Trump was elected president and the political and Hollywood class of intelligencia reflected on how this could have happened and how they can appeal to the forgotten middle American working class. Vance’s book became a political flashpoint to understand this alien species that lived outside of New York cocktail parties and universities, a position it was never intended to be in. Very quickly, the political class decided that introspection was for nerds, to hell with all those little Hitlers and shifted back to relegating them to hillbilly stereotypes they were defined by in the 30 years previous. 4 years later we get the movie adaptation, with Ron Howard at the helm steering this thing into some sort of mutant Oscar bait it will never be recognized for no matter how frumpy they dress up Amy Adams or how many fiery speeches they give Glenn Close. I couldn’t be more sympathetic to the poor, Middle-American working class depicted here, and this movie grated on me like nails on a chalkboard.
Hillbilly Elegy follows the life story of J.D. Vance himself, played by Owen Asztalos as a young man and Gabriel Basso as a high school graduate who interviews for a slot at Yale University over the course of the film’s present day story. During the interviews, Vance’s family struggles back in his home town in Appalachian Ohio start pulling him back into the cycle of drug addiction and poverty he is trying to escape and he must manage family loyalty to his overbearing mother (Amy Adams) with his new life with girlfriend (Frieda Pinto).
I admittedly haven’t read Vance’s book, but Ron Howard’s movie moves back and forth between the present day Yale story to Vance’s childhood where his mom and grandma Mamaw (Glenn Close) fight each other to raise him, as well as reflect on Mamaw moving to Ohio with her husband decades earlier. If you’re expecting Hillbilly Elegy to explore Appalachian life, to display clever Hillbilly Ingenuity, a mindset that mixes poverty with relentless can-do creativity, or contrast a working class ethic with those of the Yale academics and show people of different cultures finding their own way to success – you’re barking up the wrong tree. The forgotten man of My Man Godfrey it is not. Instead, Howard delivers a piece of southern fried misery porn, built on an endless series of domestic squabbles. Designed to shock the Helicopter Moms and Everyone Gets a Trophy crowd, Elegy’s guide to parenting is a relentless marathon of characters screaming and wailing at each other; Adam’s Bev and Mamaw attempting to shake Vance out of his mildly delinquent life (he hangs out with the wrong crowd and steals a calculator for school) with a series of insults and threats that tear down his very existence. Instead of finding culture in strife, the movie is ugly with Howard slapping superficial lipstick on this pig in the way of his glossy, professional cinematography and Hans Zimmer’s generic Feel Good Movie score.
Amy Adams and Glenn Close may get buzz for their performances, but it comes from soap opera level of theatrical Mommy Dearest melodrama that defines good acting as how over-the-top you can pitch a fit on camera. There is almost no nuance here with Adams, Close and Howard dialing up everything and belting it toward the rafters.
If Hillbilly Elegy feels at all unique it is only because of the political pop culture we find ourselves in 2020 that minimizes the importance of class and maximizes the importance of race in shaping one’s lives. In that sense, the the film, as the book has, can be used to point out the struggles of how the white poor and the minority poor have much in common. There are two problems with this. The first is an issue with the movie, Elegy is not at all original. There is nothing here you can’t see in 90s TV movies and southern charm melodramas like Fried Green Tomatoes and Steel Magnolias. I feel like growing up in the 90s, tales of the southern poor were everywhere and Elegy recycles every cliche in those books. The parent who blames her son for her alcoholism/drug use. The fight that results in law enforcement showing up. The kids running down to the local fishing hole or learning the value of hard work. The outsiders who threaten a family that fights among themselves but sticks together when threatened. Get off our land! Elegy doesn’t have that Fried Green/Magnolias southern charm. It doesn’t have the world building and interest in people of, say, Ozark. It is just a blur of self-induced misfortune.
The other issue is, well, the ending, or at least where the movie thematically steers itself. If the movie being based on a true story hasn’t clued you into J. D. Vance’s ultimate success then Howard’s predictable, by-the-numbers approach to the material would. IIf there was any chance this movie would have given us an out-of-the-box look at a culture that can thrive, that gets shot by the ending. It ultimately looks at Vance’s Ohio town as a prison to escape. It depicts Vance’s path out of his family’s cycle of poverty as a straight line through academia, through Yale. That an ivy league university education is the only way.
To contrast a bad movie with a good movie, there is a version of this story that takes the alternate route and comes from the most unlikely of places: the Pixar sequel Monsters University. In that movie our main character goes to an élite university, learns that no, actually, you can’t do whatever you set your mind to and abandons it finding success doing what he loves learning a skill at a trade school. Imagine a version of this movie with that kind of ending. Instead it is confined to J. D. Vance’s true story, which is not to fault Vance at all – he is to be commended for his life’s work – but more a statement of the movies we choose to make. A version of this story that doesn’t end the way Vance’s story ends would probably not be made into a movie by Imagine Entertainment and put up as Oscar bait by Netflix.
None of the messages would matter if Hillbilly Elegy wasn’t an absolutely miserable experience of a film from start to finish. Dull, visually uninteresting, lacking any creativity, humor or insight and seeks to manipulate us emotionally in the worst and most shallow possible way. Terrible.