REVIEW: ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ (2020) Has an Underlying Authenticity

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“So maybe this kind of cliched, albeit stereotypical, fuzzy and Ron Howard-fied family drama is the kind of heart-warming content we all need right now”

Hillbilly Elegy, based on the memoir of the same name, follows J.D Vance (Gabriel Basso) as he confronts his various familial traumas in order to overcome the generational poverty that has impacted him and his family’s lives.

It is safe to say that this latest offering from Ron Howard has been universally panned by critics and audiences alike. It has 26% on rotten tomatoes, 2.5 stars on Letterboxd and is rated 6.7 on IMBD. An all round rather murkily average taking considering the heights of its cast (including the likes of Glenn Close and Amy Adams) and score (Hans Zimmer and David Fleming). However, despite its poor reception, there is an underlying authenticity to this film that deserves to be recognised. 

There are many opportunities to feel dismissive of this film. Close and Adams are both playing characters that are drawn with a thickly bristled brush. The former being J.D’s grandmother, or Mamaw, and the latter being J.D’s mother, Bev. They are loud, garish and can feel like a caricature at times with their frantic and irrational behaviour potentially construed as ingenuine, over the top or a miscalculated representation of poverty in the States. However, the context that the film tries to portray, the reasoning for such irrational behaviour, felt convincing. How Memaw became isolated from her familial roots, the trauma J.D’s mother endures and the subsequent abuse issues as a result all contribute to what are undoubtedly devastating circumstances. The kind of extreme circumstances that demand extreme characters. 

There is a heart to Hillbilly Elegy that is deeply affecting. There’s no saying whether this film would have been just as affecting had it not been seen during such an emotionally taxing period; to make that judgement would be impossible.  But having rewatched it twice, assuming there were external circumstances relating to such a strong emotional response the first time, my conclusion is that this film is genuine. It is trying to tackle themes of generational trauma and show that there is a glimmer of hope in overcoming the oppressive poverty that is in place, albeit recognising that this is by no means easy. 

The POV shots are arresting in their use. They placed us firmly within the perspective of J.D and the tribulations associated with navigating an Ivy League School while coming from a completely polarised background to most students. What is often a dismissive joke about class in a lot of films, that of a character not knowing what kind of cutlery to use, is shown to be genuinely anxiety inducing in this portrayal. For a rare occasion, we are placed on the side of the punchline, and if there is anything that points the finger so astutely, it is this. 

This has been a universally horrendous year, where many have been separated from loved ones for one of the longest periods that we’ve known in recent times. So maybe this kind of cliched, albeit stereotypical, fuzzy and Ron Howard-fied family drama is the kind of heartwarming content we all need right now. His sense of hopefulness for a better future. As long as you go into it knowing what it is: it’s not life changing, it’s not commenting on anything new, but it’s their story. Their family. And there is something beautiful in celebrating that through cinema. Towards the end J.D expresses his sadness over not being able to tell people about how much his Mamaw meant to him. Well now every single person who watches this film gets the chance to feel just how astutely his Mamaw meant to him. Is that not something beautiful, something to be celebrated? 

Dir.: Ron Howard

Writ: J.D Vance (based on the book by) and Vanessa Taylor (written by)

Prod: William M. Connor, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard

Cast: Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Gabriel Basso

Release Date: 11 November 2020

Header image courtesy of Netflix