Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy is a 2020 American family drama film directed by Ron Howard, based on the 2016 memoir of the same name by J. D. Vance. Presumably Hillbilly Elegy was made for the entire family to enjoy, targeted primarily at the Thanksgiving weekend in the U.S.A.

In that context, watching Hillbilly Elegy as a viewer from outside of the U.S.A., the movies struck me as a competently made movie, with strong roles filled by Glenn Close and Amy Adams, who both turn in the expected premier performances that befit their stellar reputations.

However, of course, the main character of Hillbilly Elegy is J.D. Vance (Gabriel Basso) and as the movie collaterals reminds us, the movie is based on “the inspiring true story”. While that aspect does imbue the narrative with authenticity and emotional resonance, it can be difficult to fully identify with the situations portrayed in the movie, which presumably reflects Vance own life experience.

To put it simply, the plot follows a Yale law student (Vance) who must return to his poor family in Ohio after a family emergency. In a series of flashbacks, the movie endeavours to fill in the travails that Vance and his family has had to endure for most of his life. However, it’s not clear as how the “hillbilly” culture provides a context to the various trials and tribulations that make up most of the drama, conflict and tension in the movie.

Is the movie telling us that domestic violence, alcoholism, drug addiction and child abuse are part and parcel of the “hillbilly” aesthetic? If so, the movie never quite addresses why and how this is the case and seems to take this ‘fact’ for granted. But surely, that is as stereotypical as the ‘redneck’ derogative that Vance himself rails against in the early part of the movie.

Or is there an undercurrent of socio-political commentary in light of the U.S.A.’s contemporary culture divide of conservative vs liberal? Is Vance’s attempt to escape his familial poverty cycle by bettering himself a reflection of this cultural wedge? We never quite know because the movie never addresses the pertinent issues that it (inadvertently?) raises.

So while it is possible to enjoy the movie on a superficial level and let your heartstrings be pulled effectively by Close and (to a lesser extent) Adams, director Howard does not allow the movie to make deeper connections and perhaps that is the only way to truly appreciate Hillbilly Elegy.

Hillbilly Elegy is now streaming on Netflix.

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