Hillbilly Elegy (2020, Netflix)
Dir: Ron Howard
What is an elegy?
A song or poem expressing sorrow or lamentation especially for one who is dead.
Who is this film elegizing?
The film at times laments the mistakes of multiple generations of one family and their lingering effects on the following generations. Adapted from the autobiographical book by J.D. Vance, with moments of narration from the J. D. character (played as a youth by Owen Asztalos and an adult by the excellent Gabriel Basso), the focus is heavily on him, almost every scene has him in it and is from his perspective. It seems you have to consider it him being elegiac about his grandmother and mother who raised him, with their difficulties and frequent failings, including tempestuous relationships, and severe drug addiction. J.D’s the one who comes out of things the best, and honestly, it’s not so much an elegy as it is a tale of his overcoming hurdles to achieve some level of, supposedly profound success.
When was the book published?
This is something that made me really start wondering about the film. The book was only published in 2016, so there’s been no considerable passage of time between it being a bestseller, the film’s development, going into production, and eventually being released. I feel like to tell the story it does and be considered worthwhile, I’d want there to be a decent amount of time and/or a higher level of achievement being celebrated. It’s not that his personal triumphs aren’t something to be proud of, they are, but as they’re short-lived and his biggest success is writing this book and it being made into a film by Ron Howard, it all just feels more than a little self-congratulatory.
Where do we leave them?
That depends on if we count the updates at the start of the credits, you know, the ones that you often find on ‘films based on true events’. If you don’t, the film ends quite bleakly with only the faintest sense of hope for anyone other than J.D. Almost all semblance of a ‘positive ending’ comes entirely in those lines of text and pictures that bring the stories up to date. Here’s where my annoyance about the short development time returns, as none of that ‘happy ending’ was the case when the book was published. Mild spoiler follows: His mother has now been successfully clean of drugs for a number of years, the exact number of years since the book was published. His sister has been happily married for a decent number of years, 6 of which are since the book was published. Really then, I’m wondering if there was much cause for this to be adapted other than the book was a New York Times bestseller. The people, what they achieved, where they are now, are seemingly only of interest because their lives were put into a book and that book sold well. Maybe for some it will be of interest, or cathartic, or even inspiring. Personally, I found it to be none of these things in any worthwhile measure.
Why are people hating on this film so much?
I can easily see how, though many reasons might be linked to American political views, though as I couldn’t care less about that aspect, it’s shockingly unimpressive more than actively dislikeable. It’s been criticised as ‘poverty porn’ and sadly Ron Howard seems to have forgotten the key principle, show us, don’t tell us, there are far too many scenes that lack any subtlety, hammering home the point that J.D. doesn’t have much money. If there was more inference, the audience could read the situation, we don’t have to be smacked around the face with multiple credit cards being maxed out every five minutes to understand that a character is broke. Things like this feel like stupid mistakes for a seasoned, talented filmmaker like Ron Howard to make, but really the film ends up being disappointing and unimpressive, not laughably terrible, and probably not worth much ire or thought. Quite honestly, I’m shocked that my word count has hit 800 words about this film, it’s taking my time from other, better films to review! There’s so much more I can pick apart, but I will completely forget 99% of this film within a week so I don’t want to keep writing about it… well, maybe a little more.
How then, is it nominated for Oscars?
It’s nominated for two things that are hard to disagree with, one strong performance and the hair and makeup. I can’t think I have seen a bad performance from Glenn Close or Amy Adams and they’re doing all the heavy lifting here. If there were B-list actors in these roles and the director wasn’t someone of Ron Howard’s stature, this would be completely under the radar, maybe even a ‘TV movie’. As it is, it’s gotten Glenn Close her 8th Academy Award nomination, but it would be sad for her to finally win with such an underwhelming film. Her performance does stand out so much more because there’s so little else to be impressed by, and with the fantastic Academy award-nominated work of the hair and makeup teams she’s uncanny in her resemblance to J.D. Vance’s grandmother. Beyond these rightly-praised aspects, this film is the definition of ‘meh’, I’m mildly surprised it exists and quite shocked it’s attracted such a phenomenal cast and crew. Maybe something somewhere has been lost, or perhaps Ron Howard was confused when he thought it was there in the first place.