Hillbilly Elegy is white trash for tourists

Ron Howard returns to awards-hunting ground with an adaptation of J.D. Vance’s memoir that protests its authenticity far too much.

Hillbilly Elegy (2020)

▶︎ Hillbilly Elegy is on Netflix from 24 November.

The title of J.D. Vance’s acclaimed memoir blends downhome and high-falutin’ in a self-consciously calculated manner which proves characteristic of Ron Howard’s movie adaptation. On the one hand, there’s the authenticity of one man’s lived experience, and how the course of class mobility is both a source of pride for the Yale-educated narrator’s lowly Appalachian family, yet also a factor in making him uncomfortable with his volatile hardscrabble background. It’s familiar bildungsroman fare, evidently, yet its timeless theme could still hold dramatic power if effectively articulated.

Despite much effort and some artistry, that never quite happens here, partly because the inescapable tang of ‘Oscar bait’ compromises our complete emotional investment. Director Howard, of course, stands as Hollywood aristocracy, and while his career has taken an unexpected diversion into documentary recently, this appears a definite gambit to retake the awards season high ground he used to occupy with the likes of A Beautiful Mind.

That’s most obvious in what might be termed a stunt performance by Glenn Close as the steely yet vulnerable matriarch Mamaw, who dishes out vitriolic bons mots and tough love from behind Tootsie specs, a frizzy wig and uglified make-up. She is a great actress, that’s for sure, yet with all those accoutrements it’s nigh-on impossible for her to disappear into the role.

Glenn Close as Bonnie / ‘Mamaw’ and Amy Adams as Bev in Hillbilly Elegy

As her daughter Bev, Amy Adams is arguably more believable, though while the part involves a selection of chemically-assisted freak-outs which try too hard to impress, we certainly take the point about limited social circumstances crushing the self-esteem of a once-promising high-school student.

Her son, in the end, takes the opportunities which were never available to her, and, to be fair, screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (an Oscar nominee for Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water) does a very adept job of shuttling from J.D.’s turbulent early youth to a later pivotal moment in his Ivy League studies, allowing both strands to generate tension in their own right while dovetailing effectively to illuminate how our families shape us but we still have to make our own choices.

And yet, while filmmakers like Ken Loach or the Dardennes siblings draws us into their dramas by never making a fetish of their characters’ low-rent surroundings, Howard’s widescreen camera pores over every grimy, chaotic interior just so we can appreciate the set decorators’ efforts in conjuring up a facsimile white-trash vibe.

The story’s sympathy for its protagonist’s conflicted situation is never in doubt, and it’s good at zeroing in on the insidious impact of class signifiers (like the tricky wine choices at a law firm dinner), but in the end it all feels too constructed rather than simply observed, persistently keeping us at an unhelpful distance from the material.