I tried, folks. I really tried.
I know that Hillbilly Elegy came out to a negative critical reception, but the cast was phenomenal and it came highly recommended by a lot of good friends. So I did my absolute best to go into this one with no preconceptions, giving it the full benefit of the doubt. And not even half an hour in, I wished that I was watching anything else.
This is the story of J.D. Vance, also an exec producer and author of the memoir that the film was based on (here played at varying ages by Gabriel Basso and Owen Asztalos). As a boy in the late ’90s, he grew up between homes in rural Kentucky and suburban Ohio. As a law student at Yale in the early ’10s, he’s scraping tuition money together from three different jobs until he can land some internship with a wealthy elite law firm. And in the middle of a networking dinner, he gets word that his mother has relapsed on heroin and overdosed.
Speaking of which, his mother — name of Bev — is played by Amy Adams. She got knocked up as a teenager with J.D.’s older sister Lindsay, played by Haley Bennett.
(Side note: Freaking seriously? The character is a twenty-something young woman from Kentucky, in an Oscar-bait drama, and they hired Haley Bennett? Did the filmmakers even try getting Jennifer Lawrence?!)
And then of course we have Glenn Close, coated in age makeup and chain-smoking cigarettes as Bonnie, the surly family matriarch. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Frieda Pinto, making a welcome appearance as college-age J.D.’s girlfriend.
In terms of plot… well, there isn’t much here. J.D. goes home from college to care for his (potentially) dying mother, and it serves as a framing device for several unconnected scenes of J.D.’s upbringing in a deeply conservative blue-collar hillbilly family. It gets boring very quickly.
I get that the film was made in an effort to humanize those poor and impoverished Christian Americans in the deep red states, drowning in poverty and painkiller addiction, dismissed as yokels without two brain cells to rub together. All well and good. Trouble is, when J.D. shoots down someone for using the term “redneck” and the filmmakers treat it like some horrible racial epithet on par with the “n-word”, that comes off as ignorant and patronizing. Especially when that happens within the first fifteen minutes.
Likewise, if the film is going to portray the Kentucky family as loud and dirt-poor folk with massive chips on their shoulders while the New England lawyers dine with too much silverware to keep track of, leaning into the divisive stereotypes that keep the two social classes worlds apart, I don’t think the film is sending what message the filmmakers intended.
I mean, say what you will about Clint Eastwood. The man makes hardcore conservative movies that glorify Americana as defined by old-fashioned red state values. He’s overly aggressive about dispensing with nuance and subtlety, to the point where it seems like he’s practically daring the audience to disagree, or even to be offended. But when he does that, at least he does it with conviction. He knows what he’s saying, and he means it.
By contrast, this movie was directed by Ron Howard. From freaking “Happy Days” right up through his Dan Brown adaptations (with the surprisingly minor exception of Frost/Nixon), this is a man who’s made a career out of anodyne, apolitical, inoffensive features with universal appeal. Sure, he’s one of the most seasoned and effective journeyman directors out there, but he’s absolutely not to be trusted with anything as incendiary as modern politics.
There are plenty of movies in recent memory with similar rural settings, conservative viewpoints, and blue-collar characters. Mud, Winter’s Bone, Hell or High Water, Logan Lucky, No Country for Old Men, and Wind River all come immediately to mind. And the reason they all worked so effectively (or more effectively than this one, at any rate) is because they leaned into the grit. You’re not going to get that with Ron Howard, who shoots everything with a rose-tinted lens and a soaring Hans Zimmer score.
Oh, and it helped that those other films all told thrilling and compelling stories with characters who were actually sympathetic and/or fun to watch. Just saying.
I might also add that there are three ways to talk about the liberal/conservative cultural divide in any kind of entertaining or insightful way.
- Give it some kind of fantasy/sci-fi/allegorical hook. (see: Get Out, Ready or Not, etc.)
- Make it into a joke, so everyone on both sides of the divide can laugh and learn about it. (see: Logan Lucky, debatably Knives Out, etc.).
- Escalate the dramatic conflict into something with deeply personal and legitimate life-or-death stakes (see: Queen and Slim, Blindspotting, etc.)
Absent those three options, what we’re left with is a straight-faced and self-important drama that seems to think it deserves an Oscar just for mentioning the subject. That’s not gonna cut it.
Of course we have to remember that this film is based on J.D. Vance’s memoir. All of this stuff (allegedly) really happened, all of these people really existed, and everything here is deeply important to Vance for obvious personal reasons. Trouble is, the filmmakers completely failed to sell me on why any of this is the least bit important, and they couldn’t sell any of these characters as actual people. I didn’t see a message being conveyed or a story being told — I could only see an overqualified cast and crew going through the motions.
In point of fact, it bears remembering that Bev will eventually be hospitalized for a drug overdose — and not for the first time, either — and we’re told that in the film’s opening minutes. I kept remembering that every time I saw Bev fly into another tirade at her family, beat her children, pop pills, break down crying, swear she’ll do better next time, rinse and repeat.
And I’m supposed to sympathize with this woman? Is this the good old-fashioned “down home” America the filmmakers are trying to humanize? This is the family unit our protagonist is supposed to love and forgive unconditionally? These are the characters telling me that family is the only thing that matters? Sorry, no. I didn’t buy this abusive and manipulative shit from The Glass Castle, and I’m not buying it here.
Of course the cast is a huge selling point, and I can’t deny that they all do fine work with what they’re given. I’m happy to give all due praise to Gabriel Basso and Owen Asztalos, both of whom anchor the film nicely. But everyone else in the leading cast has done better work elsewhere.
Think about it — how many Oscar-bait starring vehicles have Amy Adams and Glenn Close made in the past ten years? How many more do you think they’ll make in the next ten years? I’m not going to pretend I liked all of those previous efforts, but I’d still recommend any one of them over this. Hell, I don’t even like Haley Bennett, but her leading work in Swallow was leagues better than this.
Perhaps more importantly — I can’t possibly stress this enough — the wonderful performances still aren’t enough to make this movie bearable. All the collective talent and charisma of this overqualified cast isn’t enough to make the characters into anyone I could learn from or anyone I wanted to spend time with.
It’s absolutely true that poverty, drug addiction, and our broken health care system are terribly important issues, especially in the rural states. There’s a great movie to be made about those topics, and it’s called Little Woods. If anyone else is going to make a great cinematic statement on the topic, it sure as hell won’t be Ron Howard, and it won’t be with this story.
Hillbilly Elegy is a wretched experience. It’s flavorless, it’s condescending, and I could never bring myself to care about any of these characters. Perhaps worst of all, the film portrays a mother who is abusive and dishonest, actively guilting her family into enabling her drug addiction, blaming her failures on everyone except herself, and then it has the gall to say that her children should love and forgive and enable her unconditionally and indefinitely. Fuck that noise.
I don’t know where the bar is for awards worthiness or Best of Year material, but it has to be higher than this. Don’t waste your time on this one.