Cert – 15, Run-time – 1 hour 55 minutes, Director – Ron Howard
A hopeful Yale law student (Gabriel Basso) finds himself revisiting his childhood when his mother (Amy Adams) is in hospital from a heroin overdose.
Many have referred to Hillbilly Elegy, Ron Howard’s adaptation of J.D. Vance’s 2016 memoir, as a bootstrap tale. Yet, the film seems more like something set after the peak of the bootstraps has been stood atop of. The subtitle for the novel is A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis and Howard’s film attempts to capture this, well, the family element at least. At one point Glenn Close’s crotchety grandma – called Mamaw – snaps “family’s the only thing in this world worth a god damn”, the tone of the film, if not already laid out clearly enough by this point, easily established. Or at least this is the tone it’s possibly trying to go for. Because, throughout Hillbilly Elegy the crisis is the fact that almost every character is unlikable. You rarely feel sympathy for them as they lash out and argue with each other for almost two hours.
The film is a series of tearful monologues trying to get other characters to think about themselves before descending into a random argument that contains a line such as “if you’ve got a problem with that then you can talk to the barrel of my gun” just so a character can storm of in rage so the scene can end. The screenplay truly isn’t best. And unfortunately the performances, try as they might, can’t quite help make anything emotionally engaging of this slow, fist-shaking rage. Perhaps cheek-slapping is the better term to use, after all the characters seem to believe that a quick palm-to-face interaction will solve all of life’s problems.
J.D. (Gabriel Basso) finds himself distanced from his family in 2011, called back home to Ohio the day before an early interview that could get him into Yale Law School. However, his mother (Amy Adams) is in hospital after suffering a heroin overdose, his sister (Haley Bennett) unable to look after her due to having a busy family, and having to work. As he drives through his former home of Middletown there’s a clear contrast to what seems to be the rest of the world. He travels under a bridge from well-dressed suburban life to what’s made to seem like a shabby run-down town. Everyone hangs around on street corners looking miserable, houses looking like they’ve been repaired multiple times. It’s an almost cynical view just to say that he’s distanced himself from his family, having progressed further than any of them have – as if his university life makes him superior to any of them. Cue multiple, sometimes randomly started, flashbacks to his past where we get subjected to the multiple fights and outbursts.
Alongside this we also witness many odd metaphorical points that are apparently meant to mean something. One of the most referred to examples being when Close’s character is watching Terminator 2 with her grandson (Owen Asztalos plays the young J.D. – who often is no better than the grown up version) and begins stating that there are three types of people in the world “good Terminator, bad Terminator and neutral” – it’s the type of thought parodied in a certain speech scene in Team America: World Police, but feels more like Taika Waititi’s ‘Two Doors’ monologue in Hunt For The Wilderpeople. Although the film has much less humour than this. While attempting to at times be light and humorous, or at least that seems to be the aim, it never lands and simply makes the finished product seem even more uneven and unsure as to what it wants to be (aside from Oscar bait – and it may not even work in that respect either, despite some claiming that voters might just fall for this it simply feels to weak and all over the place to be in contention). There are points where the tone and feel border on that of a fake film within another feature, where the joke is that its cheesy, cliché and not best.
The finished piece ends up, instead of being something of a crisis and struggle between a family to communicate, as a story of a distanced family. Not distanced by class, background or where the paths of their lives have taken them, but simply by the years of abuse and arguing that they have put each other through. It’s a slow watch, even more so because there’s barely a redeemable trait within anyone present – perhaps J.D.’s present-for-convenience girlfriend Usha (Freida Pinto) causes no offence, simply there to make J.D. looking like an even more agitated figure. Thing’s don’t quite come together in the right way. Simply they mesh together in some untidy clump to make for an uneven, unenjoyable and unsure look at a family and its carious issues. Wanting to gaze at various different points but jumping back and forth too often to properly look into each one the film is almost as dysfunctional and distanced as the family at its centre.
Not even Close and Adams can give performances that can prevent how unlikeable the characters in Hillbilly Elegy are. Add to that a screenplay that randomly jumps back and forth and some clunky messages and monologues, this is certainly a family stuck firmly in a constant strand of tearful argument based crisis.