MPAA Rating: R | Rating: ★
Release year: 2020
Genre: Drama Director: Ron Howard
I will pull no punches: Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy is simply awful. Simultaneously quasi-poverty porn and blatant Oscar bait, Hillbilly Elegy is so mediocre and clunky in its script and direction so as to elicit zero substantial emotional responses apart from boredom. Yet, perhaps paradoxically, every single scene has its “melodrama” dial cranked to 11. Every line is delivered as if it were written in ALL CAPS. The film is (sometimes literally) screaming at the audience What To Feel for every second of its 1 hour and 56 minute running time, barely giving us a chance to breath before drilling us again with another Big Argument or Moral Dilemma while nevertheless generating very little genuine sympathy for its over-the-top characters. The film’s tone is pitched somewhere between “Shrill” and “Obtuse” while remaining deaf (tone-deaf, that is) to its sociopolitical irrelevance. In short, Hillbilly Elegy is a total failure of imagination.
To be sure, Hillbilly Elegy is also often unintentionally funny. Specific scenes come across as if they were an incurious slapdash spoof of awards season prestige pictures. Based on J.D. Vance’s 2016 hit memoir of the same title, the film’s story structure jumps back and forth between the young J.D. (Owen Asztalos) as he grows up in Middletown, OH and the adult J.D. (Gabriel Basso) as he navigates law school pressures at Yale. There’s little rhythm or pacing to these jarring narrative leaps, and rarely do we really get a sense of time and place in the Appalachian context J.D. seems to concurrently idolize and despise. The film paints this region of America and the people who inhabit it in broad brush strokes, where every performance is a cartoon-like caricature. While I imagine the family members Vance describes in his memoir are more fleshed out and sympathetic, Ron Howard’s direction and Vanessa Taylor’s screenplay transform every real-life human being into a burlesque (or worse, grotesque) simulacrum of rural America.
Let’s examine how we’re introduced to J.D.’s drug-addicted mother, Bev (Amy Adams), and his fiery grandmother, Mamaw (Glenn Close), in the opening scenes. The elder J.D. narrates how much he loved the Kentucky hill country, how “it’s where my people come from.” (Apart from a brief funeral scene, the film never visits this ostensibly important location again.) While J.D. goes off on a bike ride to a local water hole, the scene cuts to Bev snarkily talking to Mamaw, who is grilling something on a rusty barbecue. “Hey, old woman! You packed?” Bev yells. “What’s your rush, Bev? Gotta hot date?” Mamaw sarcastically retorts. “Yeah, gotta hot date with NOT BEING BORED OFF MAW ASS!” Bev bitterly spits out as she stomps towards their car. Still grilling, Mamaw proceeds to give Bev the middle finger: “Perch, and swivel!” she cries, twirling her middle digit in the air. “I’ll go when I’m ready.” This all occurs within the first three minutes of the film, and it never lets up. These scenes are all shot with a strange Instagram-esque hue where the colors look oversaturated; the framing and camera movements are either exaggerated or distracting, with little logical continuity between shots or scenes. Within the first 10 minutes, I found myself mentally and emotionally exhausted.
While Adams’ and Close’s performances are almost insultingly over-the-top and terrible, I don’t place the blame on them. Adams in particular has given a stronger performance with a very similar character, that of the pregnant and unsatisfied Ashley in Junebug (2005), which earned her an Oscar nomination (her first of six). They’re clearly both very talented artists, and yes, they have been overlooked far too many times by the Academy. No, the blame should be on the script and direction, which hamper these two incredible actresses into shouting awful lines of dialogue at one another while covered in off-putting makeup and prosthetics. When Mamaw begins to give her form of Forrest Gumpian sagacity to a whiny young J.D. after he loses a card game to her—”Everyone in this world is one of three kinds: a good Terminator, a bad Terminator, and neutral”—you can tell Glenn Close is doing her absolute best to wring out any sense of authenticity such trite words might possibly carry. It’s to no avail; the scene was one of the worst I’d seen this year, only to be topped by a later scene where J.D. repeatedly asks a hospitalized Mamaw if she’s going to die. They somehow begin talking about Native Americans, which generates this Mamaw line: “They’re called ‘Indians’. Like the Cleveland Indians. And they don’t know more than other people. They’re not magic just cuz they don’t have microwaves.” And the Oscar goes to…?
Perhaps even worse than its formal atrocities is that Hillbilly Elegy doesn’t really have anything significant to say. Where the memoir apparently struck a nerve in 2016 as a way of “explaining” the rise of the Trump presidency to audiences who were unfamiliar with this section of middle America (confession: I have not read the book, and I do not intend to), the film version elides any political commentary or insight, instead churning out what feels like an after-school special about drug addiction which also disrespects an entire sociocultural ethos. On the one hand, it goes out of its way to make Ohio and Kentucky residents look like backwards-thinking idiots who are always yelling at each other or doing drugs; on the other hand, it also makes the people at Yale (including J.D.’s girlfriend, Usha, played by Freida Pinto—at one point, the film has to audacity to suggest that Usha’s Indian immigrant grandfather and J.D.’s abusive white grandfather had to face essentially the same challenges living in America) look like prejudice assholes or naively ignorant elites. Absolutely none of the characters, whether central or peripheral, speak or behave like authentic human beings. The only semi-redeeming performance comes from Haley Bennet as J.D.’s older sister, Lindsay, who does come across as sincere and sympathetic in the few scenes where she’s given any attention. But the film seems more interested in making a spectacle rather than telling the truth. And to a degree, that’s fine—there’s a place for the sentimental and sensational in cinema. Unfortunately, Hillbilly Elegy lacks both sentiment and truth, both formal competence and human empathy. It’s false, through and through. And that’s tragic, because such cinema has the power to enliven and illuminate, to generate empathy for places and communities we may have never visited in person. There are wonderful films which explore the environments and individual human lives of middle America: Barbara Loden’s Wanda, Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA, Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone, Paul Harrill’s Something, Anything and Light from Light, to name a few. But to borrow from the wisdom of Mamaw, I would call Hillbilly Elegy a Very Bad Terminator. Hasta la vista, baby.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6772802/