Modern exploration of the American Dream
Ron Howard directs Hillbilly Elegy
Hillbilly Elegy (15)
Running time: 1hr 56min
REVIEW BY CAMERON BLACKSHAW
BASED on the bestselling memoir of the same name, Hillbilly Elegy is a modern exploration of the American dream that ruminates on its subject through the story of the Vance family.
With the consistently well-meaning Ron Howard at the helm, it was clear from the outset that this film was trying to provide an uplifting story and establish a positive image of the oft negatively stereotyped social group of the film’s title. However, this bland melodrama does little to uplift, managing to paint a rather sour picture of its protagonists and the cut-throat capitalist world of modern America.
The memoir was written by JD Vance, the main character of the film, and it follows his journey from childhood to adulthood. The story focuses on his relationships to his erratic drug addict mother and his stern but caring grandmother.
The film is constantly shifting its timeframe, showing scenes of JD’s turbulent younger years, as well as scenes of him attempting to succeed at Yale law school. His time at Yale is constantly overshadowed by his impoverished upbringing and it comes back to haunt him when his mother overdoses and he must travel back to his home in Ohio during his important week of upcoming firm interviews.
The film cuts between scenes from his childhood and scenes of his return in order to flesh out the characters of his family. His mother Bev (Amy Adams), is at times doting on her son, but is mostly physically and verbally abusing him for his shortcomings.
His grandmother Mamaw (Glenn Close) does eventually step in to help, and the film poses that it was her tough love attitude that pushed JD to succeed at school and go on to build a prosperous life for himself. Both Adams and Close put in good performances, as expected from two great actors, but the surface-level characterisation does gives them little to play with.
JD himself is played by Gabriel Basso, who gives an uninspiring and honestly mediocre performance as the conflicted young man. His banality is seen at its heights whenever he’s in a scene with his onscreen girlfriend Usha (Freida Pinto), a relationship whose chemistry is about as electric as an ancient car battery. The performances are average, but the actors can’t take all the blame. The flat and lifeless dialogue of the script doesn’t allow for any Oscar-worthy scenes to take place.
The film’s aims and morals is where it truly falters. It sets out to improve the image of hillbillies through the plight of JD and his rise to Yale, but it portrays his rise as triumphant, as if his departure from his working-class origins and his (frankly, quite toxic) family is the right thing to do.
The film begins with JD stating in voiceover that his family, above all else, would always look after each other. However, it’s what he refuses to do, he chooses his future in law, motivated by the prospect of individual success rather than the prospect of helping his family.
Hillbilly Elegy’s melodramatic tones might scratch a cathartic itch for some, but even Close and Adams’ performances can’t save it from being pretty shameful and unsuccessful Oscar bait.