I’ll say this up front: Hillbilly Elegy is exhausting. I don’t mean emotionally (try as it might, though). It’s exhausting in a more intangible way: it so badly wants us to feel that its maudlin yet oddly chilly, emotional set-pieces ring hollow. As I finished it, I wondered where or how it had so missed the mark it had set for itself: was it the source material, J.D. Vance’s memoir of the same name? Vanessa Taylor’s rather no-frills screen adaptation? Ron Howard’s unfussy direction? I admit, it could very well be me: sometimes dramas just don’t hit you. That was the case here. Despite some solid performances (that, alas, keep reminding you they’re performances!) and rather strong work from cinematographer Maryse Alberti (giving some sequences the authentic urgency of a verité style shoot that elsewhere feels put on), Hillbilly Elegy felt limp for me.
“My name is J.D. Vance, and I think I should start with a confession,” Vance writes in the introduction to the memoir that serves as the basis for Howard’s film. “I find the existence of the book you hold in your hands somewhat absurd.” He’s the first to admit, “I’ve accomplished nothing great in my life, certainly nothing that would justify a complete stranger paying money to read about it. The coolest thing I’ve done, at least on paper, is graduate from Yale Law School.” This point is not so extraordinary as merely ordinary, but is nevertheless rare for kids who, as Vance says, “grow up like me.” That kind of self-effacing sensibility is central to how J.D. is presented on screen, as someone who is trying to make the best of his situation and suffering as he tries to escape a cycle of poverty, a path he’s been told requires him to be exceptional.
In the hands of Owen Asztalos (as a young J.D.) and Gabriel Basso (as a soon-to-be-Yale graduate J.D.), our protagonist is a bit of a blank canvas, reacting to the world in accordance with the plot set-pieces set before him. His childhood is a series of alternately traumatic and tender moments with his tough-loving Mamaw (a bespectacled and XL-t-shirt wearing Glenn Close) and his struggling mother (Amy Adams, continuing a string of brutally self-destructive characters). Framing those childhood reminisces — meant to suggest they led him to become the stand-up guy he’s become — is his attempt to navigate the world at Yale Law as a working class kid from Appalachia with a supportive girlfriend (Frieda Pinto, saddled with a throwaway role, alas) whose own traumas haunt the way he sees himself and, more importantly, the way others at the Ivy League school see him.
Much will be said about Adams and Close. Both are capable actresses who shade their respective characters with flickers of the lived-in warmth they have each brought to more saintly and motherly characters in their respective careers. But ultimately, they can offer little more than sketches: all of the characters in Hillbilly Elegy seem designed to tell rather than show us how we should feel about J.D. and his family, barely existing outside of what the plot requires of them.
After yet another scene where we learn that Mamaw is doing her darndest in raising J.D., or another when Adams’s Bev struggles to stay clean, the repetitive nature of their struggles lost their edge for me — rather than add up to something (anything, really) they merely sit there, like the many images of J.D.’s hometown shot from within moving vehicles, which aim to give a glimpse of socio-economic decline. Devoid of any helpful commentary, they feel more like decoration than context.
In a year that’s already given us a luminous chronicle of generational poverty that doubled as a tender family drama about addiction and female agency (Channing Godfrey Peoples’s Miss Juneteenth) and a non-fiction inspired drama about the effects of late-stage capitalism on the American working class that put a resilient older woman at its centre (Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland), Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy feels rather toothless, too melodramatic without the requisite pathos its characters so achingly demand.
Hillbilly Elegy premieres in select on Nov. 11 and on Netflix Nov. 24.