Netflix UK film review: Hillbilly Elegy
Ivan Radford | On 24, Nov 2020
Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Amy Adams, Gabriel Basso, Glenn Close, Haley Bennett, Freida Pinto
Watch Hillbilly Elegy online in the UK: Netflix UK
What a difference four years makes. In 2016, JD Vance’s memoir, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, was heralded as the insight the world needed into the mythical Trump-voting rust belt of white America. As Donald won the US presidential election, think-pieces flooded the web discussing the book’s portrayal of the poverty-stricken community of Appalachia and the cycles of violence and addiction that doomed anyone unable to break free of it. It was, needless to say, simplified in its generalisations, or the story of one specific family’s experiences were taken as generalisations to apply across the board.
In 2020, as Donald is on the verge of leaving the White House, Hollywood has brought Vance’s memoir to the screen. Condensing the 273-page book into two hours of screen-time, it’s an over-simplification of an over-simplification, resulting in something so cheesy and on-the-nose that it feels like Oscar bait from long ago left out in the sun to go ripe.
Adapted by Vanessa Taylor, the script forsakes any sense of nuance in favour of grandstanding speeches or loud stretches of dialogue, the majority of them delivered by Amy Adams. The ever-chameleonic and underrated actor transforms herself to play heroin-addicted mother Bev, who as outspoken with her mouth as she is with her fists in raising JD (Basso). He, however, ultimately pushes on for better things, working hard to get an interview with a law firm while studying at Yale Law School. It’s as he’s on the cusp of securing a prestigious (paid) internship that he’s called back home by his sister (Halen Bennett), as Bev has been rushed to hospital due to an overdose.
And so the stage is set for a story of identity, heritage and family, which is played out across the generations – Glenn Close co-stars as Mamaw, JD’s grandmother who has her own history of violence that, it’s suggested, has impacted upon Bev’s view of the world. But Hillbilly Elegy is a movie that only suggests things in capital letters, and what soon becomes apparent is the sheer lack of depth to any of these people. Despite Close’s enjoyably cantankerous presence, and Basso’s brooding intensity, there’s little to glean about what these people think, feel or believe about their situation or the country at large, beyond the basic notions of family loyalty and hard work equalling success. By parroting that philosophy, the film stops short of examining more complicated political or social factors that are involved in the systemic challenges facing JD’s family, instead putting the blame on their own laziness or self-determined lack of ambition.
All we’re left with is a highly sentimental collection of stereotypes that can’t work out whether it wants to be patronising or celebratory towards its main characters, while also white-washing the whole region of America as being identical. “They’re just eggs,” says one of Bev’s boyfriends at one point early on, when a piece of craftwork is knocked over. “They’re family heirlooms!” comes the shrill reply, with all the subtlety of Brian Blessed at a spelling bee. It’s telling that Bennett, who has the least dialogue, emerges as the most sympathetic of the bunch.
“You got to decide, you want to be something or not?” challenges Close’s Mamaw in one of her tough-love speeches to JD. Ron Howard’s adaptation mostly chooses not. Four years ago, Vance’s material prompted a swathe of responses and debates. Today, the only think-pieces this movie is likely to inspire are ones asking what went wrong.
Hillbilly Elegy is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.