Review: Hillbilly Elegy

Year: 2020
Duration: 115 minutes
Director: Ron Howard
Writer: Vanessa Taylor (screenplay), J.D. Vance (original memoir)
Starring: Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Gabriel Basso, Owen Asztalos

By Caz Armstrong

“Oscar bait” is a film designed to push all the right buttons to win awards but not necessarily provide anything different or push the envelope. It is formulaic and overly dramatic with a feel-good ending and probably a heavy dose of sentimentality. Ron Howard’s latest, “Hillbilly Elegy”, is all of these things.  

The screenplay by Vanessa Taylor is based on the bestselling memoir by J.D. Vance. The film shows us J.D.’s troubled childhood growing up with a violent and unstable mother and a grumpy chain-smoking grandmother who shows a lot of very tough love. Despite a few brushes with the law he’s ultimately too good for his upbringing. He struggles to cut the family ties that threaten to drag him back down.

Modern day J.D. (Gabriel Basso) is a Yale law school graduate looking for a permanent job. He’s a fish out of water at a well-to-do industry dinner where he doesn’t even know which cutlery to use. Instead of just observing the people around him he calls his one-dimensional support girlfriend Usha (Freida Pinto) for help. A lot is riding on this, and his upcoming interviews. But he’s called back home to deal with his mother, whose drug abuse has gotten out of control.

J.D. faces the dilemma of staying behind in his hometown to try to manage his unstable family or cutting ties and making something decent of his life. Told mostly through flashbacks, we see what got him into this position. His erratic childhood, his unstable mother, and a pattern of abuse passed down through the generations.

Young J.D. (Owen Asztalos) is a kindhearted child. Much kinder than the others around him. We know that because he helps an injured animal, the universal symbol for having a good soul. But he struggles to concentrate on his school work amidst his chaotic home life. He loves his mother but is abused by her and nothing he says helps. He starts to slip off the rails, a particular travesty for such a good-hearted and intelligent soul even if it’s a given for Them Others.

But an epiphany sees him get himself back on track via the medium of montage and he manages to get himself to where we see him now, the only sensible person in the family and having completed Yale Law School.

The central message here is rather distasteful; that intelligent people can escape poverty and their upbringing by their bootstraps and if only more would do that then everyone could have high flying jobs and hobnob at posh functions. The poverty and lack of support services that damaged his community and family are glanced at but not really acknowledged. I doubt he was the only one in the class who could not afford school supplies so surely school funding was the main problem, not J.D.’s response to the lack of resources?

The score by Hans Zimmer is as heavy-handed and dramatic as the rest of the film. Glenn Close is so much of a caricature as grandmother Mamaw that, as a British person, I wondered how much pantomime was involved or if it was entirely accurate. Gabriel Basso is deeply earnest and serious as the older J.D. with the weight of the whole family on his shoulders (despite him having an older sister who could have helped but is relegated to side character at best). As a true martyr, he delivers some lines with all the subtlety of someone slamming a slab of meat down on a counter.

J.D.’s girlfriend Usha (Freida Pinto) does a perfectly good job but, sadly, her character serves absolutely no purpose except to keep our protagonist connected to his new metropolitan life. She is after all of Indian descent, how ‘progressive’. I hope Pinto gets some more well developed roles in her upcoming films.

But Amy Adams is the standout. Her permanently unhinged characterisation is unsettling and completely believable. We are never sure if she has unaddressed psychological problems as well as a drug addiction and emotional issues. She provides much of the humanity that the film lacks elsewhere.

Despite this criticism, it’s still important to acknowledge that the themes of the film will resonate with people for different reasons. The desire to make something better of your life is dripping with over-earnestness in the way it’s depicted here but it is still a very real struggle for many. Drug addiction and chaotic families scar people’s lives and it can be near impossible to draw meaningful boundaries between protecting yourself and supporting others. The struggles J.D. had in this respect will touch many. Grief can be messy and devastating at the best of times without added layers of abuse and the guilt of relief.

“Hillbilly Elegy” is sopping with sentimentality and has a problematic central message. But if you don’t look too hard under these rocks you may well connect with the issues shown and get something meaningful out of it.

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