Review by Kate L. Ryan
Hillbilly Elegy is an adaptation of J.D. Vance’s memoir of the same name in which he tells the story of escaping his impoverished and dysfunctional family in working-class Appalachia to become a student at Harvard Law. His book became wildly successful in 2016, with many believing it to be an insight into the communities that were partly responsible for Trump’s presidential election. Directed by Ron Howard and starring heavy-hitters Glenn Close and Amy Adams, this film was clearly made with the Oscars in mind. Yet it struggles to be anything more than a one-note autobiography that overgeneralises the people to whom it is supposed to give a voice.
There’s a story here worth telling; rural American poverty and the struggle to overcome and break cycles is a genuinely compelling theme and, to their credit, the actors do their best to portray the characters with compassion and nuance. But the film still comes across as clunky. This is partially due to the voice-over, which really doesn’t add to the film. If anything, it makes it come across as less sincere, creating an anthropological atmosphere in which the audience has to learn about the “strange ways of the country folk” even though most of it isn’t strange enough to warrant an explanation. This is often the case with films based on autobiographies – they over-rely on the author’s words, aiming for beat-to-beat accuracy rather than having their own creative interpretation. Vanessa Taylor’s script seems to almost sanitise the serious nature of the themes and the metaphors implemented are so on the nose as to resemble pandering.
The film doesn’t seem to have anything unique to say about the several crises facing the Appalachians and similar communities. There are better and braver films to watch to get an understanding of these communities (Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone (2010) is a great example). I disagree with the idea that this film is irresponsible or that telling a story written by a Republican is a moral outrage, as some critics seem to suggest. People should be allowed to have different interpretations of their own childhoods and backgrounds. Vance’s emphasis on personal responsibility isn’t going to be shared by everyone from his background, but that’s only an issue if this is the only interpretation of the rural working-class that Hollywood decides to tell. My main issue isn’t Hillbilly Elegy’s perspective, it is the formulaic delivery of it. It is neither controversial nor groundbreaking. Instead, it is more intent on squeezing sympathy from an audience rather than telling a riveting story.