Hillbilly Elegy is a hollowed-out oversimplified mess of a film. Everyone involved in this haphazard ode to white poverty has done better and knows better. It is hard to watch, not because it is unwatchable, but because there is nothing to see.
Ron Howard is a director who has made many great films. He has also made some not so great films. But even at his worst, he’s never been this bad.
Adapted for the screen by Vanessa Taylor, Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir about J.D. Vance and his family. It is meant to be a hymn of praise to the working class, the poor, and the downtrodden. Ultimately it reveals itself to be a myopic look at the curse of the starving class only without the slightest bit of understanding of what it means to be poor in America.
The movie takes place in the 90s and the mid-2010s. To say the landscape has changed since then is an understatement. We see J.D. as a boy, played by Owen Asztalos, and as a man played by Gabriel Basso. As a child, he is merely trying to survive his drug-addled mother Bev (Amy Adams), and as a college student, he is trying to get an internship at a law firm to pay for Yale, along with his girlfriend Usha (Freida Pinto).
Still, in their attempt to sand down the rough edges and depoliticize J.D. Vance’s memoir for the screen, Howard and the screenwriter Vanessa Taylor, have ultimately left nothing but a series of scenes without a narrative spine to hang them on. The most damaging result is that J.D. has no real personality. He could be anybody, which is sort of the point, but he’s also flat and dull. They’ve robbed the very thing that made the book so popular, J.D.’s voice.
Poor Asztalos and Basso find themselves in scenes with the likes of Amy Adams, and Glenn Close and all but disappear. The two heavyweights overwhelm the scene with sheer personality and swallow up J.D. It doesn’t help that J.D. is such a flat character that the family dog would upstage his character.
Close plays J.D.’s larger than life grandmother, Mamaw. Out of everyone in Hillbilly Elegy, she comes away with the most dignity still intact. Close’s Mamaw is a caricature of a recognizable woman whom I’ve met and known throughout my life. Despite the script’s refusal to give any character a moment’s peace, Close manages to transform what is essentially a famous actress playing an abstract idea of humanity and almost makes it work.
She vanishes into the role almost completely. From time to time I had to remind myself that while, yes, she looks like she has pillows strapped to both her front and back to make her body look countrified, Close never behaves as such. She does all of this while being forced to utter such tortured lines like “Everyone is one of three things: A good terminator, a bad terminator, and neutral.”
Adams, however, is almost sunk by the script’s narrative failings. Because we switch back and forth between time without any real dramatic rhyme or poetic reason, her Bev seems like something out of a cheap psychological thriller. Her explosions of rage and abuse seem to come from nowhere. There’s never any real work to set up a scene. It doesn’t come off as true or even scary so much as poor Adams taking such big bites of the scenery we are afraid she might choke.
Bev is a real person but she is portrayed as a manic caricature of a drug addict who comes across as just a plain old horrible person. Hillbilly Elegy merely shrugs its shoulders though and silently asks “What can you do?” That she is at all redeemable is more due to Adams’s talent as an actor and less to do with the humorless melodrama that is the script’s idea of human drama.
And there is much melodrama to be found in Hillbilly Elegy. One moment, in particular, is a howler of a scene, as it rapidly goes from plausible to something out of a David Lynch film.
The scene is abrupt but slowly begins to unravel into absurdity. J.D. is sitting in his Mamaw’s house reading when Bev barges in and demands his urine. She needs it for the nurse’s state licensing board. Mamaw comes into the room and wonders why everyone is shouting as J.D. throws the empty urinal cup across the room.
Don’t worry Howard’s not done flying off the rails. Mamaw follows an angry J.D. outside and lectures him on the importance of family and demands he pees into the cup. J.D. relents but not happily.
Howard and his cinematographer Maryse Alberti, then, for reasons I cannot fathom, follow J.D. into the bathroom to show him pee into the cup. The camera is pointed down, so we can see the urine go into the cup. The score by David Fleming and Hans Zimmer begins to pulsate in the background.
Howard and Alberti switch to a low angle looking up J.D., slowly zooming in on his face as it contorts in fury, the soundtrack pounding as it creeps closer and towards his face. But then, Howard gives us his coup de grace. He ends the scene by overlaying the sound of a roaring train just before cutting to said train rolling past the camera.
I am not joking when I say, had the rest of Hillbilly Elegy had this strange Lynchian energy to it I would be writing a much different review. But it doesn’t. It’s so sanctimonious about its characters it doesn’t even seem to realize how absurd it’s being.
Since Bev is an addict it is no surprise that the film deals with drugs. But strangely it ignores the heroin and Oxycodone that Bev is addicted to and focuses a lot on marijuana and how it’s a gateway drug. Hillbilly Elegy, at times, comes off like a modern-day Reefer Madness only without the conviction.
The most maddening thing about Hillbilly Elegy though is that for as much as it claims to love the working class it has no idea what it’s like to be poor. From characters not realizing they don’t have enough money on their debit card to J.D. taking umbrage to the term “redneck”. “We don’t use that word.” As a boy who grew up poor in the 90s in Missouri, I can say that is a flat out lie. If someone does call us a redneck in a demeaning way we laugh it off because it was a point of pride.
This leads us to a more troubling aspect of Hillbilly Elegy. The movie talks a lot about how the “hill people” have the honor and a “code” they live by. Howard inadvertently tries to argue that there’s a difference between being poor in Middlestown, Ohio, and being poor in the Appachalians. There is, but the movie never seems to understand what those differences are and instead glorifies one while shaking its head at the other.
We spend almost no time in the Appachalians. J.D. is “hill folk” two generations removed but seems to look at them as if they are a class of backwoods saints. But, again, it never carries through to any other aspect of his life. The thing that stuck out to me was that the Vances never interacted with the other poor families in the neighborhood.
Of all the faults found in Hillbilly Elegy the ignorance of how neighborhoods and the working class form communities are the most glaring. The story is so insular that Middlestown never feels like anything other than a subtitle on the screen. Like the story itself, it is featureless and character free.
By taking out anything that might have made the movie controversial, Taylor is left with a gutless series of dramatic moments and no way to connect them. But she compounds their difficulties by taking J.D. Vance, the prism in which everything is viewed, and instead tries to make it so there is no point of view, thus leaving the entire film unmoored. Doing this makes it appear that Hillbilly Elegy is unconcerned about why anything happens.
Bev is kicked out of the hospital as soon as she recovers from her overdose. The movie focuses on the callousness of the doctors and nurses but ignores that the American Healthcare system is designed to be cruel and inhumane. It shows the trials of addicts and the failing system in place to care for them but ignores that drugs in America are treated not as health issues but as criminal ones. It instead merely gives us scenes of J.D. trying to guilt-trip the head of a rehab facility to get his mother admitted but never questions why the facilities seem to be overflowing and have to turn people away.
Howard and Taylor place Hillbilly Elegy in a vacuum. Characters and their actions are free from any real consequence because that would require looking at someone else for a minute or having to follow through to the point of carrying a plot point for more than a scene. At one point young J.D. gets a dog which results in Bev flying off the handle because J.D. clumsily knocked over the Easter Egg tree (don’t ask).
We will never see the dog again. Throughout the movie, characters talk about the dog, and even later on, give their condolences on the dog’s death. The scene in which J.D. gets the dog exists for no other reason but to set up a future scene, that is essentially a more brutal version of the previous one.
Take, for example, J.D.’s struggle with math. His struggles with math are a reoccurring theme, including young J.D. stealing a Texas Instrument calculator for his math class. But in the present older J.D. is studying law and is even interviewing for intern positions at law firms.
Why spend so much time on his trouble with math if he’s becoming a lawyer? Because J.D. Vance is a venture capitalist. Which, you would never know by watching Hillbilly Elegy. Even if you stayed until the end to watch the ‘Where are they now?’ pre-credit text crawl. However, you do find out that Bev has been sober for six years.
Yes, Hillbilly Elegy makes you watch Amy Adams overact her heart out for almost two hours as she struggles with addiction and it doesn’t even have the decency to give us closure or any kind of real hope, until the text crawl at the end. Nevermind that it also gives us an update on J.D.’s sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett). Lindsay hangs around the edges of the frames for the most part and her inner life, much like her mother’s, is largely ignored for moments of trite platitudes.
This is another waste of talent by the film. Lindsay is the not most fleshed-out character, but she is the one I found myself constantly wondering about when she wasn’t around. Her wants and dreams are rarely given any discussion because the film is only really concerned with the mundane featureless prodigal son.
Bennett gives the one solid performance in the whole film. It’s not over the top, it’s not showy, she just exists. A pity she couldn’t have been in a better film.
Then again, it’s a pity everyone couldn’t have been in a better film.
Hillbilly Elegy is a movie made by people who have no real love or curiosity about the working class. It is a movie made with ignorance and rank insincerity. In its attempt to please everyone it winds up, predictably, pleasing no one.
Image courtesy of Netflix
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