Amy Adams and Glenn Close try to emote their way out of this toothless piece of poverty tourism.
I didn’t hate Hillbilly Elegy, but then it’s difficult to hate a movie that so thoroughly lacks a point of view. J.D. Vance’s bestselling 2016 memoir on which the film is based has a very clear point of view, mainly that escaping poverty is simply a means of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps rather than succumbing to the “learned helplessness” of the welfare-dependent poor. I’m guessing the more liberal-minded Ron Howard wasn’t particularly keen on that thesis, but the notoriously nostalgia-obsessed director likely saw potential in the rosy, soft-focus celebration of the resilience of the salt-of-the-earth working class. And ultimately that’s all the film version of Hillbilly Elegy really is: a stereotype-reinforcing postcard of American poverty more interested in mining the misery of the rural working class for dramatic pathos than probing the underlying cause of that misery.
For a film titled Hillbilly Elegy the characters are surprisingly far-removed from the Appalachian geography they so proudly lay claim to. The young Vance, played by Owen Asztalos, is literally a tourist in the Kentucky hill country where his family visits every summer. His grandmother, Mamaw (Glenn Close), migrated to Ohio to escape the shame of a teenaged pregnancy, and the bulk of the film’s story takes place there. But being a hillbilly apparently runs in the blood no matter how far you travel, and Vance (played as an adult by Gabriel Basso) carries the pride of his heritage with him all the way to the stuffy, ivy-walled campus of Yale university.
Things seem to be going well for Vance in his quest for upward mobility, he’s interviewing for law internships and has a supportive girlfriend named Usha (Freida Pinto). But a call from his sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett) requires him to drop everything and drive back to Ohio — his mother has overdosed on heroin. This event triggers a series of flashbacks that follow Vance through his childhood growing up poor in rural Ohio, collectively raised by his mother, sister, and grandmother.
Vance’s mother Bev is played by Amy Adams, clearly gunning for an awards season run with her portrayal of an emotionally explosive opioid addict. The film has a disturbing tendency to conflate abuse with addiction, and addiction with mental illness. Based on her violent outbursts interchanged with moments of deep depression, Bev appears to be suffering from bipolar disorder. But in the film’s rush to move the plot along those symptoms get bundled up with the addiction to pain pills that comes to dominate her life. And that addiction is implied to be the root of the abuse Bev doles out to the children even as she herself is the victim of abuse. It’s all a pretty tangled tapestry of human misery that Adams tries desperately to emote her way into something resembling a real human being. Still, the scenes with Adams are at least interesting to watch as a bit of rust belt soap opera, and try as Basso might to humanize an otherwise milquetoast character the film is at its dullest when Vance is the focus.
After falling in with a bad crowd, pre-teen Vance is moved into his grandmother’s house for a dose of tough love. Glenn Close plays the crass, foul-mouthed Mamaw with less histrionics than Adams and a much uglier wig. Buried under an inch of prosthetics and a sagging artificial bosom, Close-as-Mamaw is one of those heroic, tough-as-nails working class women with a cigarette perpetually sprouting from between her fingers and always ready with a folksy witticism like, “I wouldn’t piss on her ass if her guts were on fire,” and, “you’re dumber than a bag of hair.” The character seems tailor-made for meme-ification, every bizarre saying a gif waiting to happen. It would be wonderful for Close to finally win her long-deserved Oscar for this role, but as is so often the case with apology Oscars, this is a less-than-stellar vehicle for her talents. Mamaw is less a fully-fledged character than a walking one-liner in a wig.
Opioid addiction is just one of the very real issues plaguing the working class that HIllbilly Elegy pays lip service to. There’s the deplorable state of our healthcare system in which Vance must spread the cost of Bev’s stay at a treatment facility across four credit cards. Or the drive-by shots of the once-thriving steel mill town now shuttered and abandoned (one can practically hear the tsk-tsks of Boomer disgust). And of course the specter of intimate partner abuse and teen pregnancy are ever present at the story’s edges. But the film isn’t interested in probing these issues in any meaningful way, it’s content to use them simply as set dressing for a working-class melodrama.
If the film has a thesis at all, it seems to be that Vance owes his future success to the support of a series of strong women. The character of Usha, his girlfriend, seems to exist solely to offer pep talks via phone to her overwhelmed beau. It’s disappointing for a film with so many female characters — all of whom are vastly more interesting than the protagonist — to place its focus on the struggles of the sole white man in their midst. Vance’s sister Lindsay presumably went through all the same struggles as he did, but the film offers no explanation for why he escaped poverty and she didn’t. The one bit of Randian ideology Howard saved from the book is that Vance simply chose to work hard (though Lindsay appears to work pretty dang hard at her minimum wage job at Payless Shoes).
An elegy is a lament for something lost or forgotten, but it’s not clear what Hillbilly Elegy regrets as lost other than a vague Boomer nostalgia for “the good old days.” It’s a film less interested in understanding its subjects than providing an awards vehicle for its two lead actresses, and as such will likely be abandoned to rust on the front lawn of the cultural consciousness when it has outlived its usefulness.
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