It all begins in a small town. A young white boy from a lower working-class family is trying to accomplish his dream while trying to break free from plenty of familial, economic, and social limitations. You’ve probably heard that tale before; so many movies have told them. But in Ron Howard’s flawed but moving Hillbilly Elegy, that is the story of one J.D. Vance.
Written by Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water) and based on a New York Times Bestseller memoir of the same name, this multigenerational family saga chronicles JD’s (Gabriel Basso and Owen Asztalos) life of growing up poor in Middletown, Ohio, while dealing with unstable domestic conditions and an abusive, drug-addict mum Beverly (Amy Adams). The movie goes back and forth in detailing his life, but the main story begins in 2011 when JD, now a student at Yale Law School, receives a phone call from his older sister Lindsay (the phenomenal Haley Bennett), who tells him that their mom is, once again, hospitalised after she’s ODed — not on painkillers like she always has, but this time, on heroin. Though reluctant at first, JD decides to come home anyway after he hears a little crack in Lindsay’s voice when she practically begs him to help her taking care of all this mess. And it’s his trip back home that provides the movie a window into boxes of memories — most of which are bad — that JD has tried to keep hidden since he left home for the first time to join the Marines.
With compassion and empathy, Howard puts us directly in the front seat to observe all these memories unfold. We’re transported back to a time when JD witnessed his mum get handcuffed by a police officer after threatening to kill JD in a car. We’re taken back to a time when his grandma, Mamaw (Glenn Close), takes him away from Bev so that he can have a much more stable life. And every moment and small detail that JD experience allows us to understand why he is the way he is right now; why he decides to leave his home, family, and community to pursue his dreams. The movie is, after all, not so much about JD’s childhood trauma or his family and Appalachian roots more than it is about a man coming to terms with his better self — which, in the end, becomes the very reason why, despite its tragic depiction of childhood and domestic abuses and addiction, Hillbilly Elegy feels very hopeful.
This, however, is not to say that the movie is flawless from start to finish. Hillbilly Elegy, at times, can be a little emotionally insincere. Yes, Howard’s direction is always bursting with heart and empathy, but there are some parts where it almost feels like he wants to fill up the screen with unnecessary dramatic moments that end up more overwhelming and exhausting instead of heartfelt. Take a look no further than the performances he draws from Close and Adams. Instead of letting them convey the struggles and emotions that their characters feel in an understated way, which undoubtedly would be a lot more effective, Howard tends to push them to always be flashy all the time, as if he wants to make each scene an Oscar-reel rather than a part of the movie. Of course, at some points, Close and Adams’ hyperbole, dramatic acting works pretty well, but when almost every moment is permeated by this kind of performance, the movie starts to lose its truthfulness.
That the score from Hans Zimmer and David Flemming is equally manipulative certainly hurts the movie too. But aside from those shortcomings, Hillbilly Elegy, for most parts, delivers what it wants to accomplish in the first place: telling a moving personal drama about tough love and a survival story of the American dream from the perspective of a white working-class family.
While the adaptation is by no means elevate the original source it’s based on, Howard and Taylor’s decision to leave out some elements from the book makes the movie more focused and, in a lot of ways, more personal too. In JD’s memoir, he not only talks about his personal story of growing up in Middletown, but also about the general struggles that the Appalachian community is facing there, such as lack of job opportunities and poor education. But in telling that latter subject, he makes a huge mistake when he decides to relate his personal and specific experience to what the whole community is dealing with while refusing to look deeper into the real root of the issues he tries to address. And as a result, his examination of the social, cultural, and class aspects of the Appalachian community in his book ends up being more problematic than it is eye-opening — especially considering how JD also basically deduces that the reason why these problems happen in the first place is because the Appalachians are too lazy to create a better life for themselves.
The movie, thankfully, dismisses JD’s shallow observations and stereotyping of his community to mainly focus more on the story’s more intimate — but less compelling — part of the memoir: JD’s family dynamic. Though, in the end, it feels like Howard is avoiding the real conversation around the class and community he’s trying to explore in the first place, and in the process, making the movie lose its urgency, it’s still much wiser than trying to address all the topics above without attempting to course-correct it responsibly.
Hillbilly Elegy might not be the vehicle for Close and Adams to showcase their incredible talents that we’ve all been hoping for quite some time. And some parts of the movie do indeed feel generic, and at times, even a little manipulative. But Howard’s sensitive direction, along with Taylor’s script which wisely avoids the problematic parts of JD’s memoir to focus on its more personal and hopeful aspects, makes Hillbilly Elegy still pretty much an entertaining and moving crowd-pleaser. And perhaps that’s enough.
Hillbilly Elegy will be available on Netflix from 24 November 2020.