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  • Writer's pictureStefanos Yoo-Min Florakis

Not even Glenn is close enough to save this tragedy - Hillbilly Elegy

No matter how much you tell Amy Adams to scream and shout, with Glenn Close in deep make-up quoting Terminator 2, you can not save this corpse of a film.

Back in 2016, J.D. Vance published his autobiography about his upbringing and hereditary family trauma. This book is titled Hillbily Elegy due to his family relation with Appalachian values, and how his childhood was affected during the time of the various social issues in Middletown, Ohio, during the late 90s and 2000s.

The novel ended up being a big hit to Vance, as it showed the reasoning of blue-collar, white Americans who ended up voting for the then-Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump.

The sentiments by Vance have been met with mixed reactions from readers. Some praised it for being a humane look at an underlooked part of society. While others have expressed the frustration of overgeneralizing a whole culture based on just his experience, with a lot of critics being the Appalachians themselves.

Due to the success of such a book, a film adaptation seemed inevitable. But there has been a huge issue on whether such a film with political representation would be something Hollywood would embrace, especially after the results of the 2016 U.S elections.

Vance had a huge task selling the rights of the book to production companies, as he was sceptical that filmmakers would present his republican orientation as a villainous trade and further the script away from his relationship with his family.

Thankfully for Vance, Ron Howard stepped in over a year ago, proposing to Vance a script that would avoid any political aspects and focus solely on his upbringing with his mother and grandmother. Vance agreed, with of course an additional seven-figure paycheck.

Now while a film that focuses on characters and not politics is not anything unique, it can be rewarding to the story, but unfortunately, that's simply not the case when it comes to Hillbilly Elegy.

Even though Vance's novel has been met with some controversy since it's release, (especially regarding former President Obama) it was still an interesting attempt to showcase a family with a complex history and trauma, showing how poverty and government neglect have a huge part to play.

The film completely avoids all the neo-conservative nature of the book to a completely empty melodrama full of shouting and crying but no emotional resonance or reasoning. Even though avoiding any political stance was a sensible idea to appeal to mainstream audiences, in the end, it just makes for a compilation of several emotional climaxes but with no pacing or justification.

Howard's film, written by Shape of Water's co-writer Vanessa Taylor, follows J.D. Vance on two different timelines, played by Owen Asztalos and Gabriel Basso as his young and old counterparts respectively. The narrative jumps back and forth between 1997 when Vance lived with his mother, Bev (Amy Adams), grandparents, Mamaw (Glenn Close) and Papaw (Bob Hopkins), and his sister, Linsday (Haley Bennett) all in Middletown. In 2011 we find Vance at Yale University with his then-girlfriend Usha (Freida Pinto).

The plot starts when Vance has to leave Yale to return back to Middletown, after his mother overdoses and Linsday needs his help to find a place for her, while the film jumps back to several events from 1997 to find the reasoning for why Vance left the town, and how his family has helped him to achieve his academic success.

On paper, that sounds like a typical coming of age story that we have been used to and many times have celebrated. But there are several issues to overshadow all the good intentions of the filmmakers. For one, and perhaps most importantly, the film suggests to overlook domestic abuse because of family honour.

Only twenty minutes into the film, we see Bev violently hitting and attacking a young J.D. in their car, to the extent that he runs out of the car and tries to seek refuge in a stranger's house, with Bev barging in and putting him in a headlock and dragging him out of the house.

How does this conflict get resolved? By J.D. not pressing charges against his mother, and his grandparents hailing him for doing so. Bev does not even show remorse or bring up the event again, with almost zero relevance to the rest of the film. This is not the first or the last moment of abusive behaviour by Bev towards one of her kids, with the film not seeming to understand why we as an audience have to see such a person commit these actions to then later have to feel pity for her when we see her in 2011.

The film tries to excuse Bev by suggesting that her violence and addiction are due to a history of abuse between their parents when she was a kid, with one instance when Mamaw put Papaw's back on fire while sleeping after he violently punched her. Lindsay even says to her brother: "I'm not trying to defend her, but I'm trying to forgive her."

The idea of forgiving someone's atrocities because of being a family member is a toxic notion that unfortunately forces a lot of victims of abuse into silence and making all other family members complicit to the same circle of violence. A circle that the film is trying to suggest that the kids have stopped, based on their current relationship with their loved ones.

The film's narrative structure does not flatter it at all, with minimum consistency to each scene and sequences attached to each other, with a big issue of repetition on the same issues and drama. How many times do we have to see Bev having a massive violent episode with no subtext or pacing? A lot, apparently.

In this year's far superior The Forty-Year-Old-Version, Radha Blank used a term to describe material which takes advantage of poverty to emotionally manipulate audiences, with zero substance and being far more offensive to people who actually live with such issues. That term is "poverty porn". Hillbilly Elegy falls into that distinction.

The film does not try to show the reasonings of the family's financial issues that the book delves into, including Bev's addiction. An oversimplification of such complex issues downplays the characters and motives, especially for J.D. who basically gets two montages and then suddenly he is the saviour of the family.

But, within all the narrative mess and thematic problems, credit where credit is due. Specifically to the cinematography, score, and Glenn Close.

The film is generally well-shot as it is from The Wrestler's DOP, Maryse Alberti. With some beautiful scenery of both nature and urban areas, with the imagery becoming the closest aspect to show the degression of working-class areas, with shots of shut-down factories, and people sitting in front of closed businesses.

The cast is, of course, an ensemble of impressive talent, with all of them having a moment to shine. Adams and Close are trying to bring their absolute A-game. But instead of creating performances that could be a highlight in their careers, they simply end up doing a show-reel of clips made for an awards ceremony. Something very true for Adams, that if I had not seen her before, I would never have believed she is a five-time Oscar-nominated actor. The character is simply overacted and overtired, just within its first 30 minutes.

Mamaw and every other character are stripped away of their the complexity and replaced with caricatures of two-dimensional over-acted avatars with no urgency or pathos, with dialogue that would be expected on faux-inspiring Instagram posts and not from an Academy nominated screenwriter.

Unfortunately, there is a really compelling story here, with multiple relationships that could have been developed more. Like learning more about J.D. and Usha, or how the siblings managed to survive with an abusive parent. Even J.D. living with Mamaw, described in the end as the key reason why he succeded in life, got a very small part in the story.

Even though the politics of the book might have been too controversial for a cinematic adaptation, what we got needed political identity to bring any kind of breath to this soulless awards bait. No matter how much you tell Amy Adams to scream and shout, with Glenn Close in deep make-up quoting Terminator 2, you can not save this corpse of a film.

In the end, Howard ended up with a Frankenstein's creation of a well-shot soap opera with an A-list cast.


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#HillbillyElegy #Netflix #RonHoward #JDVance

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