Ron Howard hasn’t made a definitively great film in many years, and that doesn’t change with Hillbilly Elegy. His latest can’t even claim the moniker of a definitively good film. However, with a single worthwhile supporting turn and its heart in the right place, I’m not here to pile on in the same way so many critics already have. Say what you want about the book and its insights or lack thereof, but the film attempts to explore the oft-ignored plight of poor white folks in the Midwest, those disproportionately affected by the opioid epidemic that has ravaged communities via pills and pouches of heroin. The central problem here is J.D. Vance (Gabriel Basso) as a protagonist. It’s not so much that his story wasn’t worth telling as it is, when adapted to film anyway, he doesn’t stand out as a character worth following. While it makes sense from a narrative standpoint to explore his family through the eyes of an innocent bystander, such a device works better in a literary form than a cinematic form.
Newcomer Basso does his best to make Vance as sympathetic as possible, even if sympathetic doesn’t always equal spellbinding. You root for J.D. and yet hardly know him. He’s a victim of circumstance who overcomes his environment to eventually go to Yale and practice law. Like so much in the film, we’re given the broad-strokes and not much else. Hillbilly Elegy is a complicated story with nearly all nuance subtracted for simplicity’s sake for the masses, for those not interested in raw authenticity but merely inspirational storytelling and perhaps a side of poverty zoo too. For all its shortcomings, Howard stops just short of misery porn, including enough humor and levity to avoid the pitfalls that plagued Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu throughout his filmography. Chaotic editing, with frequent flashbacks and flash-forwards, ensure we never fully connect emotionally. As J.D’s sister, Haley Bennett (Swallow) is given short shrift, similar to her brief role in this year’s other similarly flawed southern drama (The Devil All the Time). Elegy is another story that would’ve been better served in linear fashion, as an epic spanning decades of generational trauma and dysfunction.
Naturally, our attention is drawn to the histrionics of Vance’s addict mother (Amy Adams) and the irascible humor of his grandmother (Glenn Close). Adams has been better elsewhere, here the victim of little breathing room for her character. She often has nothing to play but big moments, a sure sign that Oscar baiting was top priority at the writing stage. On the other hand, Close has never been better. She inhabits Mawmaw like an old pro relishing the chance to go big and broad, and somehow able to reel it in simultaneously, rendering the old crow as a flesh-and-blood character despite the broad strokes around her. Once you witness footage of the real woman during the end credits, it’s astonishing the extent of their resemblance. Close fully transformed herself and it shows. Howard, Vance, and co. have clearly aimed to expose and treat an American wound so often relegated to the fringes of media. Try as they might, their well-meaning tale simply doesn’t have the necessary ingredients to be fully successful as a cinematic endeavor.
Currently streaming on Netflix