Hillbilly Elegy isn’t the film it thinks it is.
Based on the 2016 bestselling memoir by J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy also arrives at the end of an election year, meant as a sort of reflection on what the United States is and a sort of “promise” as to what it can be. Vance’s novel was the sort of bipartisan drivel that coined terms like “economic anxiety” and gave both sides infinite excuses as to why an overt cartoon villain could have been elected and the sheer bile spewing from red states that were (and are) increasing in hostility towards an increasingly diverse nation. You know those links and infographics you see on your friends’ Instagram stories? The 2016 white liberal equivalent was passing around Hillbilly Elegy passages as if it had cracked the Da Vinci Code of Trump supporters.
“So, that’s why,” the nation seemed to have thought in unison.
What’s most fascinating about the adoration of the book, even among supposedly progressive individuals, is that it’s just about as hateful and offensive as the President himself.
Ron Howard directs the film adaptation with military-grade talent on deck, from The Shape of Water scribe to the one-two punch of Amy Adams and Glenn Close, two actresses long overdue for Oscar recognition… and both of whom are sure locks for what have to be the most ridiculous and borderline offensive performances of the year. Adams is one of the greatest actresses of her generation, don’t get me wrong, but this feels closer to a Bohemian Rhapsody than an Arrival. Which isn’t even entirely her fault, in a script with only the most skin-deep analysis of her character – a single mother afflicted with heroin addiction and coming from a long line of abuse and neglect. The film is so focused on J.D. Vance (played by Gabriel Basso) that it affords only the broadest detailing of its other characters, which may not have been Ron Howard’s intention, but is precisely J.D. Vance’s. The setting and supporting cast of Hillbilly Elegy only exist so as to point to what happens when you aren’t him.
Netflix executives must have read the book and thought that by toning down the more unambiguously conservative messaging, it would be a surefire, party-line crossing hit. What it became instead is a bloated disaster that is accidentally one of the cruelest and thematically bizarre pieces of cinema I’ve ever seen. It’s the kind of confidently stupid and faux inspirational film that only Ron Howard knows how to make, blended with the sheer naivety of an America ready to get back to brunch now that their cartoon villain is leaving office. If J.D. Vance’s memoir was an attempt at fluffing his own image and lecturing liberals and the poor for needing and wanting help rather than relying solely on one’s own bootstraps, then Ron Howard’s adaptation is the cinematic equivalent of holding hands and declaring that the American dream never died and anyone can achieve it with enough hard work. Two sides of the same brazenly offensive coin.
Hillbilly Elegy may be the most overt bit of poverty porn ever to exist on celluloid. A moronic hagiography by its own author that stamps on the experiences of the poor across America that will now arrive into theaters to tears and applause by liberals and conservatives alike. Hillbilly Elegy will convince viewers that the American dream is alive and well, when really, the film is proof that it’s merely a lie we tell ourselves and a way of tricking and shaming the poor into believing they have no one but themselves to blame.