Review: “Hillbilly Elegy”

When J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy was published in 2016, there was some controversy as to whether Vance’s take on Appalachian culture as embodied by his family was truly representative. Others latched on to Vance’s memoir as a guide to understanding red state politics and the rise of Trump.  

The Ron Howard-directed film adaptation, streaming now on Netflix, addresses none of that. It focuses on the “why” Vance felt the need to escape his upbringing (poverty, a drug-addicted, abusive mother) and scant little on the “how” he escaped and became a Yale Law graduate.

Set in a 48-hour period when Vance (Gabriel Basso) is scheduled for a final interview for an internship he craves, the film flashes back to periods in his youth and episodes with his mother Bev (Amy Adams), Mamaw (Glenn Close), and Papaw (an unrecognizable Bo Hopkins – I didn’t even know he was still alive) as Vance is forced to return home to once again deal with his mother and her problems.

Howard is a director who has always run hot and cold for me. He’s made some good films (Parenthood, Apollo 13), some middling films (The DaVinci Code series), and some absolute crap (the execrable How the Grinch Stole Christmas). His films are often entertaining and occasionally audience-rousing, but I don’t think the adjective “deep” can be applied to his output.  

That depth is what’s missing from Hillbilly Elegy. The film is downright shallow.

“Drugs are bad” is the hackneyed lesson one takes away by the film’s conclusion, a lesson the movies have been regularly teaching since 1936’s Reefer Madness. Howard practically pays homage to that film’s notorious piano-playing scene (“Faster! “Faster!!”) when he has Bev speeding in her car and beating her son.

Short shrift is given as to how Bev goes from being a nurse to a heroin addict or why she makes the string of bad life-decisions that she does, though I suppose the scene where Bev witnesses Mamaw setting Pawpaw on fire is supposed to explain that. More frustratingly, Vance’s journey out of that life is dismissed in a few short scenes and lines. (“I went to Ohio State.” “I joined the marines.”) How the hell did he do that?

Howard’s films often lack depth, but they do not want for talented casts. Basso as the older J. D. and Owen Asztalos as the younger are both solid as is Haley Bennet as J.D.’s sister Lindsay. Adams and Close show why they have thirteen Oscar nominations between them, bringing some depth to what are essentially one-dimensional characters.

Hillbilly Elegy is not a bad film, but it’s not a great film, either. With a stronger, differently-focused script, it might have been.

Hillbilly Elegy is streaming exclusively on Netflix.

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