REVIEW – ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ is disappointingly shallow, tactless, and exhaustingly dull

In recent years, the term “Oscar-bait” has become a dirty word amongst awards season pundits. And for good reason. Around this time each year, we’re served up several pieces of cinema brazenly designed to attract the gaze of Academy voters. As the unprecedented Best Picture victory of an anti-Oscar-bait film like Parasite proved, the Academy isn’t quite what it used to be.

However, this is still the Academy who fawned over Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody just one year earlier, so it’s anyone’s guess how they’ll respond to this year’s most shameless example of Oscar-bait films; Ron Howard‘s bland melodrama Hillbilly Elegy. All the ingredients for a major awards contender are here; an Oscar-winning director at the helm; two acclaimed female actors with 13 (unsuccessful) Oscar nominations between them; and it’s a “true story” based on a best-selling novel. What could go wrong? Well, practically everything.

While Glenn Close tries her utmost to save Hillbilly Elegy from itself (and maybe that’s enough of a reason to finally give her that overdue Oscar), the end result is disappointingly shallow, tactless, and exhaustingly dull. A paint-by-numbers tableau of melodramatic scenes that often incoherently jump between two timelines, Hillbilly Elegy is so misguidedly focused on painting its portrait of poverty porn that it forgets to add any substance or depth to a flat narrative that leaves the faintest of impressions.

To understand how we’ve arrived at this generic film, we need to go back to 2016 and the unexpected presidential election victory of Donald Trump. In the aftermath of Trump’s surprise ascendency to the White House, a shellshocked America sought answers as to how the hell this could have happened. Part of the explanation arrived in the form of J.D. Vance’s autobiography Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir detailing his journey from a troubled childhood in Appalachian Kentucky to becoming a Yale Law graduate and successful venture capitalist.

Vance’s memoir provided insight into a region plagued by poverty and decades of government neglect, leaving its residents with few opportunities to achieve the “American dream.” It was an area political pundits knew nothing about, which explained how their polling predictions systems completely overlooked Trump’s ability to bedazzle Rust Belt residents into voting for him with false promises of restoring the area’s economic possibilities. In the pearl-clutching aftermath of Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton, many liberals flocked to Vance’s book in a desperate attempt to understand where it all went wrong.

Vance used his book to criticise “coastal elites” for misunderstanding his homeland, yet, strangely, also blamed his people for their inability to break free of an endless cycle of abuse, addiction, and poverty. Vance became the poster child for conservatives for his shrewd introspection of rural America, but equally drew criticism from Appalachian natives for his broad generalisations of “hillbilly culture.” In early 2019, Netflix paid Vance $45 million for the films rights to his memoir, and, thus, here we are.

It may be odd to find a film review giving you a background history of the book it’s based on, but you really need this context to understand why this adaptation is so confoundingly safe. Howard and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor have all but stripped away Vance’s controversial neoconservative commentary and cultural judgments to completely zero in on his familial dramas, leaving us with little more than a middling, generic piece of fluff that actually could do with a dose of controversy to liven things up.

Hillbilly Elegy focuses on three generations of a lower-class Applachian family, as told through the eyes and occasional narration of J.D. (Owen Asztalos as a teenager, Gabriel Basso as an adult). In 1997, J.D. is living with his recovering drug addict mother, Bev (Amy Adams) and older sister, Lindsay (a grossly underused Haley Bennett) in Middletown, Ohio. As Bev spirals back into her opioid addiction, J.D.’s tough-as-nails grandmother, Mamaw (Close) steps up to provide the parenting her grandson so desperately needs.

In 2011, J.D. has made a jailbreak from his rural home to study at Yale Law. With the support of his doe-eyed girlfriend, Usha (Freida Pinto, literally phoning it in), J.D. is hoping to secure a much-needed summer internship at a prestigious law firm to help finance his final year of study. Just as J.D. is on the cusp of landing a crucial interview, he receives a call from Lindsay who requests her brother return home to help deal with Bev, who’s been hospitalised after a heroin overdose. As J.D. returns to his hillbilly roots, he’s forced to confront the painful memories of his past while attempting to save his stubborn mother from her addiction crisis.

J.D.’s inability to truly escape his past is the central message Howard appears to be concerned with tackling. By virtue of presenting his film in a non-linear style that aimlessly jumps between 1997 and 2011, it’s a message that’s essentially forced down your throat at every possible opportunity. Unlike something like Greta Gerwig’s Little Women that thematically connected past and present scenes, Howard crafts his chaotic structure with little rhyme, reason, or rhythm. Given the changing age of the film’s characters, it’s not that it’s difficult to understand what timeline we keep finding ourselves in. You’re just consistently left with confusion as to why Howard chose to present the film in such a messy fashion.

With its central story of a young man’s rise from poverty to the hallowed halls of an Ivy League school, Hillbilly Elegy bumblingly attempts to deliver the kind of crowd-pleasing, rousing rags-to-riches narrative the Academy consistently used to eat up. It feels like something from another era that we’ve moved well beyond, especially in the wake of recent films that masterfully presented introspections of class inequality like Parasite, Sorry To Bother You, and Snowpiecer. Hell, even Joker was more insightful than this watered-down garbage, and that’s truly saying something.

It’s borderline offensive how Hillbilly Elegy attempts to argue hard work, determination, and an encouraging maternal figure are the magic keys to successfully breaking free of the cycle of poverty millions of Americans are perpetually trapped within. Vance’s memoir arrogantly blamed the problems of “his people” on their inherent laziness, and it’s a confounding message Howard and Taylor continue in this adaptation, particularly in the film’s depiction of Bev, who’s constantly portrayed as someone who just flat out stopped trying to better her life and the lives of her children.

By removing any of the political subtext from Vance’s book, Howard presents a film that is so egregiously terrified of offending any viewers, it ultimately lacks any true acumen or insight into, well, anything. It’s so bluntly resolute at being an entirely apolitical film that it completely ignores the external factors that contribute to the cycle of poverty J.D. has managed to escape. In one of the film’s most ludicrous moments, the key to J.D. taking his studies seriously lies with Mamaw buying him an extravagant calculator. If only every poor person had a Mamaw in their life to buy them a fancy piece of mathematical equipment to save them from a life of poverty.

At no point in Taylor’s screenplay is there’s any mention of the government decisions (on both sides of the aisle) that consistently ignore the plight of the poor, nor is there any examination of liberal ideals like universal healthcare or free education that would have eliminated many of the Vance family problems. Hillbilly Elegy does little more than feed the outdated myth of how the lower class consistently make poor choices and only have themselves to blame for their own poverty.

Many were hoping Hillbilly Elegy could be the film to break the Oscar curse for both six-time nominee Adams and seven-time nominee Close. Nominations seem all but assured for this pair of actors who could sneeze and the Academy would applaud, but the race for Best Actress and Supporting Actress is already dotted with performances with greater nuance and gravitas, so victories for the long-overdue Adams and Close may have to wait for another year.

Under a tonne of transformative make-up and prosthetics, Close gives it her all in a typically impressive performance that toes the line between fierce and vulnerable. As the tough but fair grandmother who desperately wants her grandson to avoid the life of misery she’s suffered through, Close is perfectly cast. She deftly handles the biting monologues she’s constantly tasked with delivering, offering several “Oscar moments” that you’ll no doubt see throughout awards season.

Adams is saddled with delivering a performance that starts at an 11 and genuinely has no room for any growth or evolution from there. She’s essentially recreating her role in The Fighter, but with more screaming and death stares. It’s a borderline satirical redneck turn that feels more at home in something like Saturday Night Live than a serious awards contender. It’s not entirely Adams’ fault, as she’s sadly given all of the film’s most cliché lines and ultra-dramatic moments that mostly fall flat on their face. Even someone with her endless talent can’t elevate this one-note character that suffers from a genuine lack of authenticity.

There was a chance to do something truly bold in adapting Vance’s controversial memoir. By handing this project over to someone like Howard, the end product is so generically innoxious that it fails to prove any necessity for its existence. It’s a decent film that may indeed find a loving audience, but that’s hardly acceptable considering the pedigree of those involved. We should be raving about a marvellous film with biting commentary and provocative ideas that seek to challenge an audience. Instead, Hillbilly Elegy is more likely you have leaving with little more than an indifferent shrug.

Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Gabriel Basso, Haley Bennett, Freida Pinto, Bo Hopkins, Owen Asztalos, Keong Sim, Morgan Gao, Sunny Mabrey, Brett Lorenzini
Director: Ron Howard
Producers: Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Karen Lunder
Screenplay: Vanessa Taylor
Cinematography: Maryse Alberti
Production Design: Molly Hughes
Costume Design: Virginia B. Johnson
Editor: James D. Wilcox
Music: Hans Zimmer, David Fleming

Running Time: 116 minutes
Release Date: 24th November 2020 (Worldwide)