Movie #58 2021: Hillbilly Elegy (2020)

Hillbilly Elegy has received quite a lot of criticism since its arrival on Netflix, so I thought I’d give it a go. Do I understand the hate for it after seeing it? Yes and no…

Directed by the legendary Ron Howard, the movie is based on a memoir of the same name and told from the point of view of the protagonist J.D, which stands for James David – the same as the author who penned the original book. It details his life in Ohio, where he lived with his family who were originally from Kentucky. Starring Amy Adams as J.D’s mother and Glenn Close as his grandmother (or MawMaw), we are privy to the trials and tribulations his family faced as a result of poverty, drugs, and many other obstacles. The story therefore is pretty much a re-telling of how he was raised in a sort of ‘hillbilly culture’ and what he did to break free from those ideals in order to attend Yale Law School.

At the beginning of Hillbilly Elegy, it feels as though Ron Howard came into it with only good intentions… and then loses sight of his privilege as it goes on. Not only that, but in a world where it’s frowned upon to give a voice to potentially harmful ideals, choosing to adapt this book seems like a really weird choice.

It’s not all bad, don’t get me wrong. The production value here is of the highest order and the cinematography is rooted in clarity and quietly beautiful landscapes. But that’s the best part of it.

Where it all goes wrong is via the condescending nature of it all. The movie portrays poor, working class people as stupid and mannerless, and the actors don’t exactly get the chance to prove these characteristics wrong because the script leans right into those stereotypes. If it wasn’t made by bougie rich white people, there might have been some decent storytelling at the forefront because the baseline narrative is actually quite interesting. Don’t forget, we all remember what happened the last time rich white democrats looked down on and ignored the opinions of the poorer working classes… In that regard, it’s probably best to steer clear of this sort of thing in a time when the United States is trying its hardest to unite across party lines rather than divide.

Perhaps surprisingly, I didn’t have a problem with the acting. It’s not exactly Amy Adams’ best performance, but all these comments about her “overacting” have only confused me now that I’ve seen it. Glenn Close is obviously brilliant to the point where she’s almost unrecognisable, but I was actually really quite impressed with Gabriel Basso who tries his damned hardest to make these characters less one-dimensional. (Even if his own character is straight cis white dullness of the highest level.)

I’ll be honest: I didn’t actually hate this as much as I thought I would and I let myself feel sympathy for its characters. Maybe part of that is simply because I’m not American, and therefore can’t quite grasp exactly how offensive or inoffensive this may be.

However, as much as I love Ron Howard usually, I wish someone who actually came from nothing had directed it in order to avoid it just becoming pure Oscar-bait. What I see here most is a missed opportunity for something that could have been excellent, when instead we got a movie that is most likely a little bit disrespectful when all is said and done.

Hillbilly Elegy is available to stream on Netflix in the UK.

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