Hillbilly Elegy

Cinematic Mess

By Muhammad Ali Khan | December 2020

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Just a few months before the 2016 US elections that brought Trump to power, a young Silicon Valley investment manager published a memoir called ‘Hillbilly Elegy’. The memoir was a personal analysis of a culture in crisis and the superiority of the white working class over blacks. J. D. Vance, in his book, related the story of what a social, regional and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck. While the book became the New York Times bestseller, Ron Howard’s film ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ is a terrible cinematic version.

Keeping the political angle aside and ignoring the word ‘crisis’, the story takes place between 1997 and 2011. Based on a memoir of the same name, ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ focuses on J.D. Vance (Gabriel Basso) who has lived his entire life in Ohio with strong Kentucky roots while trying to fight prejudice and financial restraints to make it to a prestigious college.

Back in 1997, young J.D. Vance (Owen Asztalos) spent his summer riding a bicycle around the backwoods and swimming in a creek. He lived with his mother Beverly (Amy Adams) and sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett). Beverly was fond of the place and was close to her father Bo Hopkins whom Vance calls Papaw. But it’s his Mawmaw (Glenn Close) that runs the film with her curly hair, big glasses and oversize American flag T-shirts. She is the maternal caregiver J.D. needs when his mother gets violent.

hillbilly-elegy 2In 2011, Vance is a law student at Yale and is on the verge of landing his dream job when he receives a call from his home citing a family emergency. Though he has tried hard to forget his home, he rushes to the family. Soon he finds that his mother has suffered a heroin overdose. He helps her overcome the worst while re-living the events of his childhood. He remembers the constant mistreatment of his mother due to various drug addictions and numerous boyfriends. The only thing he held onto was his grandmother Mawmaw, the resilient and whip-smart woman who raised him to make a better future for himself.

While the first half of the film focuses on the younger Vance, the second half shows an adult Vance trying to balance himself in the new country with his girlfriend. The difference in both the parts are easily seen as the one where Glenn is mostly absent, the scenes are boring as compared to the part where Glenn takes over and is probably the only one justifying her character. Still, that doesn’t explain the clumsiness of the film.

Amy Adams puts her all into the character of Beverly but it is hard to understand her as she is mostly not in control of her actions. Though we learn of her struggles of the past but her violent behaviour of hitting children and cursing nurses is totally not cool. What we only see of her character is her addiction and its impact on J.D.’s future.

Basso balances himself quite well as a man who wonders whether to focus on his addicted mother or to cut her loose to save his future. His relationship with his Mawmaw is beautiful. Frieda Pinto as Basso’s girlfriend Usha has a frustratingly slight role. While Owen Asztalos as the young J.D. is composed, it’s Glenn Close who gets the limelight. Though she was not given the Oscar for her brilliant acting in ‘The Wife’, she is undoubtedly the single best thing about this cinematic mess. One can feel one’s energy rise as soon as she is on screen.

J.D. Vance himself points out in his book that his background makes him interesting yet different from the others but the film pays no heed to it. Written by Vanessa Taylor and directed by Ron Howard, the story is poorly portrayed as it rather seems like a rich man’s idea of what it is like to be a poor person. The writing is done in such a manner that the plot feels vague and hazy, unaware of the world it is portraying. The film is full of unwanted fights and trips to the hospital, making it a waste of strong material and a brilliant cast. Even then, if you want to watch the film, watch it at your own risk as it is a two-hour waste of time and energy.