‘Hillbilly Elegy’ review: death, drugs and the American Dream

Ron Howard's ode to the forgotten working class fails to acknowledge the legitimate problems they face

It’s hard to imagine Ron Howard having anything other than the best intentions when he took on this adaptation of J.D. Vance’s bestselling 2016 memoir, published at a time when those depicted in it decided Donald J. Trump would be their best bet for an improved life. Perhaps he saw it as an opportunity to shine a light on an overlooked chunk of the population. Unfortunately, the director’s Netflix drama about bygone days in middle America has ended up a blinkered depiction of the working classes.

In one notable scene, student J.D. (Gabriel Basso) is sat at a large, splendid dinner table with ludicrous amount of cutlery surrounding his first course. To his left and to his right are law firm scouts. He’s supposed to impress them, charm them, and get himself a job offer. But J.D. doesn’t know how to approach the cutlery. He’s just a working class lad trying to make it in the big, bad world of Ivy League litigators. When the dinner conversation turns to his background, he explains he’s from Middletown, Ohio, a small rust belt community where he had to work hard to make something of himself. He joined the Marines just to get into college.

Hillbilly Elegy
Glenn Close and Owen Asztalos in ‘Hillbilly Elegy’. Credit: Netflix

Flitting between past and present, the film shows how young J.D. (Owen Asztalos), raised by his drug-addict mother (Amy Adams) and no-nonsense nan (Glenn Close), goes through tribulations that test, but don’t break him, while older J.D. is coming to terms with his roots. The central theme – hard work can get you everywhere – is hammered home incessantly. It could be considered naive if it wasn’t for the blatant, perhaps-even-knowing misrepresentation of how America really works. Not got medical insurance? Well that’s your fault for not keeping your job! And wow, wasn’t this part of America great once? If only it could be great again…

Elsewhere, the representation of working-class people is borderline cartoonish. In casting A-list stars and shooting in a glossy format, Howard has built a film that betrays the very people its apparently trying to celebrate. There’s nothing sincere about it, rather, it feels like elite Hollywood folk slumming it in a misguided attempt to tell some sort of necessary truth.

Hillbilly Elegy
Amy Adams stars as a struggling drug addict in Ron Howard’s new Netflix drama. Credit: Netflix

It’s a feeling that is thoroughly backed up by the performances of Close and Adams. The former, after seven winless Oscar nominations, scampers around, fag in hand, scowling and cursing, wearing a mountain of make-up in an effort to look like she isn’t wearing any at all. She might as well have tattooed ‘for your consideration’ on her forehead. Adams meanwhile gives it her all as the flaky, loser mother. As a wholly unpleasant woman, she’s not much fun to watch, and shockingly one-dimensional.

If any credit is due to the cast of Hillbilly Elegy, it’s the J.D. actors. Asztalos and Basso are uncannily similar in their portrayals of the lead character, and both offer a subtlety their famous counterparts work so hard to avoid. “We choose who we become,” we’re told. The broken systems of America that led to places like Middletown being left behind are not even vaguely referenced. Instead, as Hanz Zimmer’s big-budget score swells, we’re led to believe that America’s working class only have to keep faith in the American Dream to succeed. It’s hard to believe even Ron Howard thinks that.

Details

  • Director: Ron Howard
  • Starring: Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Gabriel Basso
  • Release date: November 24 (Netflix)
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