Film Review: Hillbilly Elegy


Amy Adams and Glenn Close lead the cast of this Ron Howard-directed biopic, based on J.D. Vance’s 2016 memoir of the same name. Like most of Howard’s films, Hillbilly Elegy is perfectly watchable, unchallenging and largely forgettable awards fodder.

Unfortunately, it’s not much else, with very little insight into its characters, visual flair or creative storytelling. Not that Howard – modern Hollywood’s most successful journeyman director – usually brings much more than a reliable hand and solid output, but even by those standards Hillbilly Elegy falls somewhat short.

In telling the worthy story of J.D. Vance, a former serviceman and law school hopeful troubled by a challenging family life, Vanessa Taylor’s screenplay takes few risks and eschews emotional complexity for histrionics, sentimentality and a tidy, conventional structure that flattens out the messiness of Vance’s life, offering instead one goshdarnit moment of greetings card family wisdom after another. In an age where Parasite can win a Best Picture Oscar, the script is weirdly dated, periodically offering cloying tidbits like “Something was missing: maybe hope”, or “the road from here to there was rocky. No way around but through”.

Everything just feels so off the shelf; from the opening voiceover narration, to the flashbacks of Vance’s mother Bev’s (Amy Adams, sleepwalking through a role that demands little else) early life, to the Terrence Malick-lite shots designed to invoke nostalgia for some working-class rural Americana. The latter of which invariably falls into clichés of alcoholism, volatile personalities and decades-old frustrations. The leads do their best with pretty thin material and Gabriel Basso makes for a likeable if rather blank Vance.

Most of the heavy lifting, however, is done by the makeup department, doing its best to make Amy Adams look harried and plonking old-lady wig and glasses on Glenn Close’s grandmother, Mamaw. Meanwhile, although much of the cinematography looks nice, it suffers from a hyperactivity that often utilises multiple lenses and shots in a single scene that, coupled with choppy editing, is annoyingly distracting.

The narrative, naturally, is led by the events of Vance’s memoirs, and the tribulations of the three generations of his family are by turns harrowing and moving on paper. But Howard rarely brings these moments to life, dropping character developments and reveals with little subtlety, while each character is reduced to a type: J.D. is a Good Boy; Bev is a Troubled Mother; Mamaw is a Concerned Granny. We are know exactly how we are supposed to feel about each character, making for some pretty inert drama.

It’s not so much that Hillbilly Elegy is bad, per se, just flat. There is a moving, even affirming story here about working class lives and the intense inequality baked into American life. But instead of tapping into that dramatic potential by asking difficult emotional and systemic questions, Howard habitually reaches for the comfort of sentimentality and simplicity. The result is a film that is sufficiently inoffensive so as not to raise much ire, but neither moving nor intelligent enough to hold much interest.

Christopher Machell @MachellFilm