Hillbilly Elegy

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Glenn Close in Hillbilly Elegy.
Glenn Close in Hillbilly Elegy.
Photo: Lacey Terrell/Netflix


1/5 Stars


Based on the memoir of the same name by JD Vance, a young law student recalls his tough upbringing in suburban Ohio even as he is once again called to his family's side when his mother is admitted to hospital for a heroin overdose.


When JD Vance's memoir, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, was published in 2016, it was met with instant controversy. While it was largely embraced by conservative readers and critics for its portrayal of someone finding success as an adult, despite a childhood defined by abuse, addiction and poverty, liberals were less than impressed with its overly simplistic view of poverty and class in America and the policies that exacerbate the situation for millions of working-class white people in the country.

That it was released the same year that Donald Trump was elected president only served to make this humble book a microcosm of the increasing divide between the poor, white working-class that raised Trump to power – ironic, of course, since you could hardly find a more privileged, decidedly non-working-class white man than Donald Trump who made much of his money by exploiting exactly the sort of people who voted for him – and just about everyone else.

Not a jot of this controversy has made it into this film adaptation, though. And it's all the worse for it.

As you may have gathered from my aside about The President Who Should No Longer Be Named, I'm a fairly dyed-in-the-wool liberal so I probably would have sided more with the memoir's liberal critics had I read it, but I do think that it's usually worth engaging with the views of the "other side" -  especially when they're rooted so firmly in personal, lived experience. And, honestly, since my liberalism does not have much room for identity politics (an ironically aliberal belief that people should be judged, not according to the content of their character, but by the colour of their skin, their gender or their sexuality), I do think that a discussion about the American left's abandonment of its original commitment to the working class for "intersectionality" is one that's well worth having.  

Had writer, Vanessa Taylor, and director, Ron Howard, centred their adaptation of Vance's book on these timely moral and political quandaries, it would have been, at very worst, horribly offensive. What it is instead is something far worse: it's an absolute nothing of a film, with nothing of interest to say, no new ideas to impart and no reason to exist as anything other than an exploitative piece of awards bait.

Howard has a host of bad films in his filmography, but he is usually, at the very least, a highly competent director who can make almost anything watchable. And, to be sure, he largely does so here. He has also assembled a group of top-notch actors and all the technical aspects, from cinematography to score too – well, actually not editing – are all perfectly fine. Even taking into account the horribly on-the-nose narration, the stiff dialogue, the barely-there characterisation, and the insanely stupid idea to tell the story by cutting from the past to the present every three minutes, there is, technically speaking, more than enough here to give it at least a "meh" 2-star rating.

And yet, in this case, the fact that there is so much talent both behind and in front of the camera, only makes me hate the film more. However bad some of Ron Howard's films have been, I've never really thought of any of them as cynical. Not the Da Vinci Code/ Robert Langdon movies, not even the Dilemma. And, let's not kid, the vast majority of his many, many films are excellent and, more often than not, quite heartfelt. Hillbilly Elegy, however, feels like nothing more than a desperate attempt to win as many awards as possible by playing to the worst awards clichés imaginable. Vance's original memoir may have been politically problematic, or it may not have been, but there is something truly distasteful about taking something that was at the very least, worthy of controversy into a bog-standard addiction/redemption story, at best, and crass poverty porn, at worst.

Even the performances, though largely very good, are undermined by this pervasive stench of artifice and cynicism. There are hardly two actresses on the planet more deserving of heaps of rewards than Amy Adams and Glenn Close (seriously, not a single Oscar win between them!) but all I saw here were two actresses acting to within an inch of their lives. That they act through awards-courting, "uglifying" make-up only adds to this distasteful effect – and that's despite the fact that the make-up work is so good that they do, actually, look an awful lot like the people they're playing.

Hillbilly Elegy: a movie so bad that even the things that are good about it look bad just by association.

Most damningly, even if I'm entirely wrong and the film really was made with only the best of intentions, it's still just a bad piece of storytelling when you get right down to it. The flashback structure is a mess, and if you take a step back for half a second, you quickly come to realise that all that you're really watching is a progression of scenes of cliché characters shouting bad dialogue at each other for what seems like years. Even if the film isn't hateful, it's still entirely unengaging, bland, humourless, overwrought, overly familiar, badly told, and punishingly dull.

Come back, Robert Langdon! All is forgiven.



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