New to Netflix: ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ Review
So, I have to be completely honest – when the title and autoplay trailer for veteran director Ron Howard’s new film ‘Hillbilly Elegy‘ started showing up a few days ago on my Netflix feed, I had absolutely no interest in watching it. As someone who is not a huge fan of the genre, drama films can be very hit or miss for me and they always tend to be the kind of movies I have to be “in the mood for” to sit down and watch. But I do recognize that there are amazing dramas out there with enigmatic stories and characters that go out of their way to narrate dark and relatable tales that dig deep into the human condition, possibly creating unforgettable experiences for film lovers. Unfortunately, Hillbilly Elegy is just not one of those dramas.
Even with a stellar cast, featuring Amy Adams and Glenn Close in lead roles, the films predicable writing and uncreative plot can’t be saved from leaving audiences with a feeling of mediocrity. As a kid that grew up outside of Dayton, Ohio and is familiar with places such as Middletown that the film references, I wanted to like the movie, but for some reason, it left something to be desired. Despite having a high production value, star studded cast and extremely relevant social commentary it still ends up feeling like a “missed opportunity” as Peter Travers of Good Morning America describes.
So what exactly happened? How did Howard drop the ball on making a film that could have truly spoken to that middle American, working class demographic that has perplexed political analysts and sociologists in this Trump era? And are the rough criticisms the film and cast have received at all warranted? I’m determined to get down to the bottom of why this movie looked right, yet felt so anticlimactic. So I’ve downed some edibles, and we are going to hash this out together. Let’s get to it!
A Brief Synopsis of Hillbilly Elegy
Hillbilly Elegy is based off a memoir written by J.D. Vance, with the subtitle, “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis”. The book and film tells J.D.’s coming of age story from his family moving from Kentucky to Middletown, Ohio to his struggles as a young adult with getting into and adapting to life as a Yale University student. His upbringing was heavily influenced by his mother Bev (played by Amy Adams) and his crass, shit-talking grandmother he calls Mamaw (played by Glenn Close). His relationship with his mother is constantly pushed to its limits as he watches her deal with addiction, beginning with opioids that she steals from her nursing job to heroin. Her erratic behavior gets worse as the film progresses and J.D. feels more and more hopeless as he’s forced to endure the blunt of it. But it’s Mamaw that gives him the tough love he needs to recognize that he is better than this and will one day get out of Middletown.
That’s…. pretty much the gist of the movie. Director Ron Howard, who is famous for films such as A Beautiful Mind and The Da Vinci Code, made what feels like a bland, high budget “safe” Hollywood movie that we can all pretty much expect from him. It’s a coming of age story where we are shown in the beginning that he makes it to Yale so there isn’t much room left for surprises, so most of it feels like a boring attempt at a feel good “pull yourself up by your bootstrap” kind of story.
While I didn’t read the book, I have researched a bit into it and it seems that Vance had certain political and social opinions to push which I didn’t really get from the movie, with the exception of some of the story’s subject matter relevant to issues such as the opioid crisis that exists in places like Ohio. The film felt like the tale of someone’s rough upbringing who just so happened to take place in Ohio, but unfortunately some critics of the film don’t see it that way.
Critics Ripped the Film Apart
Like a pack of hyenas ravenously hunting for something to tear limb from limb, so many critics have found Hillbilly Elegy as the perfect prey. In all honesty, it was the scathing reviews and low scores given by sites like Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB that pushed me to actually watch the film. Reading a bit into it being about Ohio and who the director was, I got caught up in the fascination of trying to understand what exactly is so bad about the film. Director Ron Howard is far from being a controversial name in filmmaking; if anything I would say his style is pretty safe and predictable. So what could garner so much disdain from both viewers and critics?
The book received a handful of criticism due to it being heavily political in nature. According to the Wikipedia page for the book, Vance uses some of his personal experiences to make conservative-leaning arguments about the downfall of culture due to a hillbilly mentality that keeps people in a vicious cycle of poverty and he even talks about people on welfare abusing the system. It sounds like typical right-leaning fodder that we’ve all heard time and time again, so it comes as no surprise that publications like The American Conservative and National Review sang its praise.
The film, on the other hand, doesn’t feel as politically fueled, yet so many critics seem intent on pushing the idea that it is. An article from the Hill accounts people’s initial reactions to the trailer and film, using the book and the similarities to accuse Vance, in particular, of “looking down on these communities and profiting off of a one-sided portrayal of their lives”. An article from the Atlantic titled “Hillbilly Elegy Doesn’t Reflect the Appalachia I Know” proclaims to argue that the film doesn’t focus on the positive aspects of the Appalachia which the writer also came from, all the while they step on their own toes by stating, “I don’t think of Appalachia as somewhere I escaped. I see it as the place that shaped who I became” which for some viewers of the film might kind of be the point. And in a scathing review from the Guardian, the writer helps support the Atlantic writer’s take by saying the film was “a prestige slog, full of flat, sneering caricatures”.
My Take on Hillbilly Elegy
I absolutely understand why and how people weren’t impressed by this film. As I stated earlier, despite being from Ohio and having witnessed first hand the damage opioids and poverty can do to individuals, their families and their communities, something about it felt anticlimactic. Howard stuck to a predictable rags to riches type story formula that didn’t really deliver. Addiction is a super dark subject, and while I don’t expect every film on the subject to be as hard to watch as, say, Trainspotting or Requiem for a Dream, I do think that if someone wants to do the subject justice you almost have to go out of your way to make the viewer FEEL something. And that’s the thing about this movie that left me unimpressed – I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t feel anything for any of the characters or the outcomes to their stories. It felt absolutely empty, and personally I just chalk it up to poor writing.
Whatever ideas that critics insist on pushing from the book to the film adaptation, in my opinion, is a bit misleading. The film at no point goes out of it’s way to push ideas or opinions upon the viewer about society and politics, including the thought that J.D. Vance “escaped” his Appalachia home. I believed he escaped a rough upbringing and the thing about difficulty upbringings is that it’s easy to get sucked into repeating the cycle all over again. Honestly, I’m in awe that the Atlantic published that article (and it’s actually doing pretty well) because it’s absolutely ridiculous to posit the idea that just because you hail from the same place as someone else, that their retelling of their experience is somehow invalidated if it’s contrary to yours. It’s really great that your Ohio life was fantastic, but that doesn’t mean everyone else’s is too. I also think it’s ridiculous because you kind of have to ignore the fact that Ohio has spent years in what some call an opioid epidemic to buy into the idea that Vance’s telling of his experiences are bullshit.
Overall, I didn’t feel like this film was some outcry using conservative ideals to push some sort of agenda. In a review on RogerEbert.com, it’s stated that the film, “has little interest in making sweeping statements about the historical roots of white, working class, Republican Rust Belt grievances” which I absolutely agree with. Whatever political leanings people are looking for in this movie is just not delivered, which may be the biggest difference between the book in the film, possibly to the film’s detriment.
While I do personally believe this film is a bit weak and I wouldn’t recommend it to most people, I do believe there is a narrative in it that many people can relate to and possibly like. I do agree with practically every review that Glenn Close’s performance as Mamaw was some Daniel Day-Lewis level of method acting, but unfortunately it just wasn’t enough to save the movie from its inevitable doom.