Movie Review: Hillbilly Elegy

With the end of the year on our doorstep, it’s time for the so-called “prestige” films to start hitting our screens. But this year is like none other we’ve ever seen for movies. Cinemas all over the world have closed due to Covid-19 and the studios have shifted many of their titles to the streaming services in order to recoup at least some of their investment. Because of that, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), the organisation behind the Oscars®, has had to institute a “temporary” change to its eligibility rules for this year’s awards. Now, a film can debut on a streaming or VOD service to be eligible for an Oscar nomination. However, the film must have had a planned theatrical release and it must also be made available on the Academy Screening Room streaming site (for members only) within 60 days of the film’s release.

One Oscar bait-y film that landed on a streaming service a few days ago is acclaimed director Ron Howard’s (SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY; A BEAUTIFUL MIND; APOLLO 13) HILLBILLY ELEGY. Based on the 2016 memoir of the same name by J.D. Vance, HILLBILLY ELEGY recounts Vance’s time when he was a law student at Yale University. After Vance (played by Gabriel Basso (SUPER 8; TV’s THE BIG C) as an adult and Owen Asztalos as a teenager) receives a call from his older sister, Lindsay, (Haley Bennett, THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME; SWALLOW), that their mother (Amy Adams, VICE; ARRIVAL; AMERICAN HUSTLE; HER; the SUPERMAN franchise) is in the hospital back in their hometown of Middletown, Ohio, having overdosed on heroin, he heads home to try to get her into a rehab centre. The news of her overdose couldn’t have come at a worse time for him. (Is there ever a good time though?) He has to risk not getting a summer internship at a prestigious law firm, and the income he would receive from it would cover for his third year’s tuition. While en route, he remembers the key events in his life that brought him to this point.

HILLBILLY ELEGY is getting raked over the coals by critics and it’s not hard to see why. For what should be an underdog tale of a boy, who was born on the wrong side of the tracks, overcoming the odds and making a success of himself, Vance’s story instead smacks of white male privilege whose biggest problem is not getting a well-paying job. For some reason, Howard and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (co-writer, THE SHAPE OF WATER; DIVERGENT), want audiences to feel empathy for Vance for having a crappy, working class childhood yet still being able to pull himself up by the bootstraps. Yes, he did and good for him for doing it but is his story worth retelling? Being a white male, he already has an advantage over just as hard-working women and people of colour who have to deal with institutional prejudice every single day, and what makes this story all the more irksome is that his own girlfriend, Usha (Freida Pinto, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE), is one such person yet she doesn’t complain. She gets on with it and even supports him on his journey because he’s a white man.

Vance’s book also had its share of critics though they weren’t commenting on his white privilege. In the book, Vance draws a solid line from his home in the American Rust Belt in Appalachia and Ohio to the rise of Donald Trump and the GOP in a part of the country that had faithfully voted Blue for generations. This part of America has not only been shafted by corporate America, who exported their jobs overseas, it has also been hit hardest by the opioid crisis. According to Vance, this is why those like him donned MAGA hats for the first time six years ago. In the movie, Vance’s mother Bev is a drug addict but Howard and Taylor make no attempt to understand the reasons why that happened. Instead, Vance’s firebrand grandmother, Mamaw (Glenn Close, THE WIFE; THE BIG CHILL; the 101 DALMATIONS franchise; TV’s DAMAGES), explains it this way: Bev “just gave up”. Maybe the real Mamaw really did say that but it doesn’t make it worth repeating without showing the other side of the argument too. Vance has said in interviews that the takeaway from his book should be that community and family are all that really matter, and perhaps this is the message that Howard and Taylor want audiences to takeaway from the film too. Unfortunately, what they give us is what some critics are calling “poverty porn” that we can watch and say, “There but for the grace of G-d go I.”

Close and Adams, who have 13 Oscar nominations between them with nary a golden statuette to show for all their efforts over the years, give it their all here. Close is barely recognisable in a frazzled wig, Coke-bottle glasses hiding her face and a fat suit underneath her Walmart-purchased wardrobe. Of the two performances, hers is the better one as her character has more depth but I’ll make a safe prediction now and say that she won’t win an Oscar for this role either. Adams characterisation of Bev just has one note – crazy, jacked up train-wreck-of-a-mom. Bo Hopkins, whose relationship with Howard goes all the way back to 1967 when he appeared on an episode of TV’s THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, has a small role here as Papaw, Vance’s grandfather. Hopkins also appeared in AMERICAN GRAFFITI in 1973, the film that catapulted Howard onto Hollywood’s A-list.

HILLBILLY ELEGY is streaming now on Netflix. Audiences are liking this film more than critics are. I certainly didn’t hate this film but I did find the story to be highly problematic. Take it or leave it.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, December 4th, 8:30 am HK time!

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