Hillbilly Elegy (Review)

J.D Vance’s best selling, and deeply controversial, memoir uses his lived experience (as presented by him) as the springboard for a number of conclusions about society and politics. He sees himself as a microcosm and from this projected an assortment of views that many, myself included (though I have admittedly only read around the book) find deeply troubling. Therefore, why not make a broad Oscar bait movie from this source?

It is an odd text to adapt, and an even odder one to give to Ron Howard, until you realise the approach the film is taking. The movie ignores the polemical nature of the text and instead focuses purely on the memoir, employing the safe hands of Ron Howard to make it feel as apolitical as possible (already a red flag). It would be tempting to give a thorough political deconstruction of this film, which would be possible – as a lot of its is deeply troubling, as things tends to be when you take the ‘apolitical’ stance (ironically, a deeply political statement). The film does not even merit this though, as it is such a poor piece of filmmaking that it does not even deserve being treated like a work of art – even an objectionable one.

Fundamentally, the issue comes from its very inception: when you take away the intent from the memoir you are just left with a story that is not at all interesting. This just becomes the narrative of a man who graduates from Yale – hardly the most compelling story (that also relies on him being impressive because he went to Yale – which I don’t care about – while eating that cake it has provided by repeatedly making it clear that going to Yale doesn’t matter). And the film obviously knows its narrative is utterly inert, as it hides the lack of actual narrative behind a fractured structure to spice things up. It is a classic case of storytelling over story, where Howard thinks a healthy dose of the non-chronological will make things interesting. Our protagonist, J.D Vance (played by a soporific Gabriel Basso as an adult, and a similarly uncharismatic Owen Asztalos as a child) has his adult moments mirrored with echoes from his childhood. The aim is mostly to thematically match things up, to apply a foundation or to juxtapose now from then. The end result is mostly homogeny, as high energy scenes cut into other high energy scenes in a way that cancels out both. It boils down to a lot of shouting with no real context, which just does not work. The key example of this is cutting between a random scene of youthful vandalism to a present day scene of angry door knocking… For some reason. The structure is consistently attempting to add purpose or meaning, or energy, but does nothing.

Ultimately, the film boils down to swapping between the utter monotony of J.D Vance in the present day – a narrative that gives you nothing to cling onto or nothing to care about, a narrative that thinks it can align you to its focus by explaining he doesn’t know what fancy forks are – and then either Glenn Close or Amy Adams (his grandmother and mother respectively) shouting. Scenes either start at 11, or build up to 11 in repetitive ways, or just never go anywhere. It is all just incredibly numbing and flat – and confusing as the sanded off conclusions drain the narrative of any purpose. You leave it having watched a thing, a confusing thing in which people shouted a lot and some events were chronicled while lots were ignored. It also is utterly blind to wider social issues while overtly praising extremely strict parenting. There is a central scene where young J.D gets told he needs an $85 calculator for school – a deeply unfair ask that reveals a real problem with the educational system and funding – so therefore J.D thinks he can’t succeed. He doesn’t have money, so he tries to steal it. He gets caught, disciplined by his grandmother – who had told him to just get it – and then she reveals she has actually bought it. There is some kind of message here but the film does not know what it is, as the calculator is then key to him doing well in class and getting into Yale. Yet, the film repeatedly makes the point that it is discipline, hard work and pulling yourself together that equal success. Anybody can make it with the right ethic and through the right decisions.

But, he needed to be bought a calculator that could suddenly be afforded and should not have needed to be bought in the first place. But, because the film does not want to say anything, it continually has scenes like this that just make no sense. You feel like you are missing out on the real story and instead all you get is a return to the shouting.

A good proportion of the film boils down to shouty scenes that could be summarised thus:



End scene.

And this is why the film really exists, it exists as an awards vehicle and, shamefully, this worked – securing a nomination for Glenn Close’s shouting, and for the makeup and hairstyling that facilitates this shouting. This is, of course, in spite of the fact it is not a good performance – because it never could be with this script. This is such a vapid nothing of a film, sanded down so much that it just feels like an assortment of random scenes from a boring person’s life (a life that has elements that are far more interesting and dramatic by him, but a rendered inert when presented from his point of view, or as catalysts for him). What is included seems weird, what isn’t included seems even weirder and what you are supposed to think… Well, you are supposed to just think it is awards worthy and that it will appeal to ‘audiences’. No actual thinking is required. Luckily, this film has made no impact beyond a couple of nominations that will go nowhere. Just avoid this flat mess of a movie. I am not saying I want an adaptation of the actual memoir with all of its controversial edges – I certainly don’t – but I don’t want this either.

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