Hillbilly Elegy

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

It is a true sign of our fractured times that a work as inoffensive as Hillbilly Elegy has inexplicably become one of the most polarizing films in recent memory. Critics hate it! Audiences love it! Dissension between egalitarian pleasures versus the opinions of the elite is nothing new. This is merely the latest work to expose the current cultural divide. A cursory glance uncovers that the swath of negative reviews is rooted in politics that have been shoehorned into a saga that is nonpartisan. Perhaps pundits are conflating the movie with the bestselling memoir by J. D. Vance on which this is based. His comment on class, family, and the American dream is culled from his own experience. In this adaption, Howard and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water) sidestep those issues directly.

Hillbilly Elegy is simply about succeeding in America from difficult circumstances. If director Ron Howard is guilty of anything, it’s that he has dared to show compassion for unlovable people. Although J.D. Vance has predictably cast himself as the admirable center of his biography, it’s the women in his life that make the strongest impression. Howard’s straightforward portrait miraculously empathizes with irresponsible and immature adults. Chief among these is J.D.’s mother Bev played by Amy Adams and Glenn Close as his grandmother Bonnie who is affectionately known as “Mamaw.” The two actresses give authentic performances that draw you into this family and provide a basis for his upbringing. Mamaw’s fondness for Terminator 2: Judgment Day is just one random but amusingly honest detail. I was emotionally invested in these people. Actor Gabriel Basso plays the adult J.D. but Owen Asztalos emodies him as a child. You wholeheartedly believe Asztalos is the younger version of this character. He’s exceptional. The ensemble is united in its conviction to present the undeniable warmth within a family affected by profound hardship.

This is J.D.’s life and it’s his story to tell. Hillbilly Elegy is a moving chronicle of a dysfunctional clan of eastern Kentucky natives. It’s part of a larger tradition. Frank Capra was a filmmaker whose populism often heralded the everyman. These “pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” ideals unify audiences. One would think the concept of a poor individual who triumphs over modest beginnings to find success would be a quality that anyone could champion. Close and Adams are especially good. Thanks to their engaging performances, the “rags-to-riches” drama is compelling, even uplifting at times. This is admittedly a clumsy account. One simplistic scene is set at a dinner at Yale with a bunch of Ivy league types. J.D. runs to the phone to ask his girlfriend which fork to use and what white wine to order. This can be melodramatic and corny but it is very entertaining nonetheless. Certainly far from the “poverty porn” epithet that detractors have used to dismiss it. Hillbilly Elegy clearly wasn’t made for the critics. It’s an affecting profile of the common man. In that spirit, I embraced their humanity.


4 Responses to “Hillbilly Elegy”

  1. Sometimes critics really tick me off. I mean I know I often use them as guidance for what movies I might like or which ones I can straight up avoid, but for god’s sake what is “poverty porn” when it’s at home? I swear man, some people can’t be pleased.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I liked the story. Amy and Glen were very good in these roles. I think they both deserve nominations. 31/2 ⭐️


    • They might receive nominations. The critical establishment was pretty cool on this. Although as the popularity of Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody proved, the Academy and critics don’t always agree.


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