Ron Howard’s “Hilbilly Elegy”, based on the memoir of the same name by J.D. Vance is a predicable, “Oscar bait” type of film which has been grossly and often cruelly misrepresented by the critics. It’s by no means the most breathtaking or perfect product to come out of Ron Howard, but it’s still a real life story with strong, in many instances transformative performances and a core central message of the importance of personal responsibility and the power of the individual in overcoming adversity. This is by no means a poor film, and is far from the seemingly offensive and grotesque entity that’s been relegated to 26% on Rotten Tomatoes.
J.D. Vance (Gabriel Basso), a young man from a poor Appalachian family in Ohio, is in his last year of Yale law school and is in the final stages of interviews for summer internships when he receives news that his mother has relapsed and he has to return home. In a series of flashbacks, the film tells the story of J.D., his childhood with his lost and often abusive mother Bev (Amy Adams) and how his grandmother “Mamaw” (Glenn Close) helped him break out of the cycle of poverty, drug addiction and abuse that had trapped his family for generations.
First and foremost, the performances from Close and Adams are phenomenal. I often felt uncomfortable and intrusive watching them as these characters, the actresses are both completely unrecognisable and embody varying stages of bitterness and desperation. Both are raw, nuanced and sympathetic portrayals of women whose lives have been a brutal struggle and they are angry at the world for it. Vance worked closely with Howard and the actresses on the depictions of his family members and said that Close’s depiction of his grandmother in particular was uncanny, down to her posture, glare and walk. While Close’s performance I think is probably the more impressive and the closest the real life woman between the two, Adams goes through a pretty incredible and tragic transition from a vibrant but misguided young mother to a weathered and exhausted creature beaten down by life and resentful towards her son for escaping what she never could and reaching his potential when she never did. Gabriel Basso as the grown up Vance is fairly understated as J.D., but I didn’t mind that so much. He’s an ordinary young guy who was able to succeed despite some pretty dire circumstances and its really a story about the influencing figures in his life and I think Basso was well suited for this.
I can’t understand why so many of the reviewers were so personally and vehemently outraged by the film’s themes of personal responsibility and an individual working hard to overcome adversity to achieve success. “Rags to Riches” type stories translate well to film (The Pursuit of Happyness, Rocky, The Aviator, My Fair Lady) and the kind of story that resonates well with audiences (hence the 86% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes). It’s a nice moment, if a little cliche, when J.D. starts cleaning his room and studying hard after seeing Mamaw give him the biggest part of her meal when the Meals of Wheels delivery man informs her that she only qualifies for the one and she can’t afford to buy anything more. It’s heartwarming when J.D. comes home after scoring the top score in his class and Mamaw sits down in her chair to read it over.
Had it not been for Mamaw, the film is pretty explicit there’s no doubt that J.D. would have gone down the path of addiction and destitution like the rest of his family and like the other boys in the neighbourhood. Importantly, Mamaw doesn’t coddle him and allow him to make the same mistakes as her daughter, she instead instills in him the value of hard work, self worth and being accountable for his own mistakes, “You’ve always got a reason! But it’s always someone else’s fault! At some point, you’re going to have to take responsibility.” At times the script is pretty hackneyed and some of the encounters between the characters are a little too much like they were written specifically for the trailer and not as organic tit for tat exchanges. Still, this is a Hollywood production and schmaltzy dialogue is an issue I have with plenty of films and the script here is by no means any worse than the ordinary Oscar contender. Be that as it may, the dialogue is absolutely jarring at times, and when grown up J.D. convinces a rehabilitation nurse that his mother needed a bed because she was a good person and was the smartest person in her class, I found myself cringing pretty damn hard.
“Hilbily Elegy” is a story about middle America which isn’t often explored in film, and certainly not in a way that’s sympathetic to that world and the cyclical and generational poverty which affects those who live there. I think the screenplay is at times weak and in dire need of revision, but this is still a well produced, entertaining story with some stellar performances and I think an important and resounding central theme.
By Jock Lehman