Directed by: #RonHoward
Written by: #VanessaTaylor
Even in these strange times of cinema, there’s something oddly reassuring to see the season bring in the usual offerings of awards bait. With an Academy-award winning director, prestigious stars, and adapted from a New York Times bestseller about poverty and personal strife, Hillbilly Elegy seems to tick all the necessary superficial boxes. Despite captivating performances from Glenn Close and Amy Adams, its the poorly structured and melodramatic script from Vanessa Taylor that leaves the film as hollow as the stereotypes it claims to be deconstructing.
J.D Vance, a venture capitalist whose autobiography centred around his upbringing in Ohio, raised by his mother and grandmother with Appalachian values was hailed as a supposed portrait into the struggles of the white working-class of America. With cultural divisions in America more splintered four years on, Ron Howard’s film feels like a tone-deaf assumption of these issues which exacerbate upon the criticisms lobbied at Vance’s book. The film follows an adult Vance returning home from Yale in the wake of his mother’s overdose, as he attempts to handle the emotional fallout Vance reflects on his childhood through various flashbacks focused on the complicated relationships he had with his family. Hillbilly Elegy aims to examine the sacrifices families make for one another through loyalty as Vance’s tries to absolve his guilt for finding success and leaving his family behind. Vance has “escaped” the poor echelon his family had toiled through for generations, hiding or downplaying his heritage to his girlfriend and potential employers.
Howard’s direction leaves the film lacking verisimilitude, a lot of the dramatic scenes (mostly involving Amy Adams’ Beverly Vance hollering in rage or hysteria) just wildly go off the rails. These scenes displaying J.D’s difficulties with his mother can be bewildering in how they address the subject matter including child abuse and drug abuse. It’s less of a story about Appalachia and its culture than just a series of repetitive melodramatic family outbursts. Neither Gabriel Basso nor Owen Asztalos can make J.D Vance a compelling protagonist, whether it be in present-day or flashback, Vance’s youthful selfishness or elder frustration just leave audiences apathetic to him. While their characters are let down by clichéd writing I found the lead performances from Glenn Close and Amy Adams to be the best part of the film. Their raw talent is doing most of the heavy lifting for Hillbilly Elegy especially Close whose "Mamaw" Vance is a scene-stealer from her very first appearance. Though even their energy can become tiresome as Adams’ sudden bursts of anger seem more in line to give her an awards clip rather than a commentary on the character’s mental health.
It's clear Oscar bait but not even compelling Oscar bait, its themes are underdeveloped and not inspired at all. Not a realistic portrait to poverty-stricken America in the slightest but rather “Hollywood’s” idea of what that might entail, lacking realism and authenticity in its narrative. Hillbilly Elegy just looks down on the culture its supposedly representing, relying on stereotypes and frustrating bathos than anything real to say about the issues it's shallowly parading around.