Hillbilly Elegy – Review

Whatever deity you believe in…it’s not enough to get through this. 

In 2016 J.D. Vance published Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir shining a light on the oft-ignored white working class of Appalachia and the American Rust/Bible belts. These cultures are chained by tradition, by cultural bubbles, by drug problems, and by a mentality of circling the wagons versus looking toward much of a future in many cases. Vance’s book reads like someone working through survivor’s guilt than it does a love letter to these people, and now Ron Howard is here to trim the rough edges and hopefully make this otherwise harsh and controversial mouthpiece a new voice.

He has not succeeded.

Ron Howard’s 2020 film Hillbilly Elegy was released to Netflix a couple of weeks ago and it has taken me three tries to get through. A lot of the focus is less on J.D. (Gabriel Basso) and his younger self (Owen Asztalos) than it is on the women of the family, his mother Bev Vance (Amy Adams) and her mother Bonnie “Mamaw” Vance (Glenn Close). And thank goodness for that because without the two stellar performances from two incredible actresses there would be no reason to sit through this. It chronicles the struggles of the boy as he grows up while his mom jumps from trashy guy to trashy guy and her addiction problems spiral further and further out of control. 

Entire rants and monologues could be drawn up to talk about the pacing and structural problems of the film, but what comes worse is the idea of “poverty porn” that Howard’s new film revels in. Ron Howard is, by all accounts, an awesome dude and a fun guy to work with. He sired Bryce Dallas Howard, one of the best actresses of my generation. The guy narrated Arrested Development and stepped in to save Solo: A Star Wars Story. But he’s as journeyman as it comes, leading projects to decent ends and having never done anything I could truly praise. Now he’s taken this story of forgotten people and taken anything worth talking about out of it. 

Oh, sure, the drug addiction is still there. The idea of family sticking together no matter what is definitely hounded on. But you know what’s not there? The horrific racism. The guilt of escaping a life you know you can’t bring anyone else out of. Ideas about anger and hatred over merely feeling unimportant (a feeling most of us feel from time to time). It’s missing everything that made Vance’s memoir worth talking about, both for good and ill. 

What it does have is Amy Adams tripping balls and skating around a hospital while doctors call for security. It’s got Vance being offended at his folk being labelled “rednecks.” It has Mamaw Vance telling J.D. life lessons in comparison to action movies and pop culture. For a film that shows addiction, child abuse, and what is considered “low culture” in America…it’s pretty tame. Howard has, unfortunately, delivered a boring and hollow portrayal of rural and poverty-stricken America in a slick package, one that will undoubtedly appeal to those that need to feel justified in identifying with this type of life rather than looking at the culture and politics that created it.

I wish I loved Hillbilly Elegy. I wanted to, I tried to, but instead I’m more than bored by it – I’m disappointed. I wish I could be inspired by it, feeling the same as J.D. Vance when his Mamaw made sacrifices for him so he could have a better life (I guess that’s the message?). Instead I feel like Ron Howard has made a sacrifice, and it’s one that wasn’t worth the hustle and fuss.

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