Hillbilly Elegy Review
Ron Howard’s adaptation of Hillbilly Elegy arrives on Netflix as a newly coronated relic of a bygone era. A New York Times bestseller in the wake of Hilary Clinton’s surprise election loss, a status partially fuelled by the media desperately trying to understand why the white working class suddenly swung in favour of a Republican party who didn’t represent their best interests, J.D Vance’s memoir proved to be provocative for a number of reasons - a status that has largely endured, as he has dropped the mild mannered veneer of social conservatism to openly speak in favour of far right policies. It comes as no surprise that a safe pair of hands such as Howard’s largely neuters any potential political controversy, attempting to divorce the source material from a contentious period in history, where the struggles depicted in the book won’t be overshadowed by a context forced upon it.
Naturally, this yields very mixed results, as a humanist drama about addiction and class struggles is still being told from the very distinctive point of view of its author (the protagonist of the tale), ensuring a clear ceiling as to how apolitical Howard can make a story dictated from an unshakeably Republican mindset. And while the film is far from the Trump voter love letter many feared, the watering down of the source material’s provocative insights leaves Howard with a completely different problem. His Hillbilly Elegy is a tale of a family overcoming addiction that doesn’t attempt to understand the generational cycles of poverty that lead to substance abuse beyond the broadest of strokes, shying away from anything that could be interpreted as a political comment contrary to the source material. It’s a missed opportunity to transform a problematic memoir into a meaningful statement, so terrified of becoming a political hot potato it opts to say as little as possible instead.
The story is split evenly between the mid 1990s and the early 2010s. In the nineties, J.D Vance (Owen Asztalos) is constantly moving from home to home due to a mother (Amy Adams) grappling with an all consuming heroin addiction, that leaves him mostly in the care of his wildcard grandmother (Glenn Close). In the 2010s, the older Vance (Gabriel Basso) is trying to make a name for himself in the legal field, but finds himself returning to his hometown after getting word that his mum has relapsed and been admitted to hospital.
Screenwriter Vanessa Taylor is not blind to the inherent contradictions of Vance’s worldview, keenly aware she’s dealing with a social conservative who often remarks that the Republican party are economically unsuited to the working class. The closest the film even gets to a political statement appears to be from the opposite side of the aisle altogether, as the character of J.D lashes out at a hospital worker who has to remove his mother from the facilities, as her insurance has lapsed and can’t be treated to healthcare - arguably showing awareness that Medicare for all would effectively help break the cycles of addiction that plague many working class families in the States. The problem is that her screenplay never dares to delve any deeper, refusing to contradict the worldview presented in the memoir, even as it’s aware of its many limitations.
Outside of its politics, the film does a disservice to the struggles of the working class in another way - getting two rich Hollywood actresses to do camped up, showy performances in a manner that feels like awards bait first, and an attempt to do service to real people devastated by addiction a distant second. An act of “class drag”, if you will. Of course, there is a strange campy enjoyment to both lead performances, but that’s largely due to a meta reading of the film as a vessel solely to get these two famous awards season bridesmaids their golden statues. In context, their over-exaggerated drawls do a disservice to the wider drama - what should be an understated work in the same vein as Winter’s Bone opts not to handle any of its hot button issues with the sensitivity needed. In short, it becomes a melodrama even more disconnected from the rural working class the source material already struggled to make its readers understand.
Hillbilly Elegy is available to watch on Netflix from November 24.