Ron Howard's latest captured an emotional snapshot of America, but shies away from analyzing it
Ron Howard has been fascinated with underdog stories, from his box office hit Apollo 13 (1995) to his more cerebral A Beautiful Mind (2001) and the thrilling Rush (2013). His latest film seeks to apply this interest of his with an exploration into a heavily stereotyped demographic of America in Hillbilly Elegy (2020).
Hillbilly Elegy is the adapted memoir of J.D. Vance. In the film we follow his life in 1990s Ohio as a child (Owen Asztalos) suffering hardship at the hands of his opioid addicted mother Bev (Amy Adams), and the tough love of his grandmother Memaw (Glenn Close). We also follow J.D’s life as an older Yale law student (Gabriel Basso) seeking to shed off his past in order to “triumph” professionally and financially, only to have his ghosts drag him back.
Given the incredibly polarized state that Americans find themselves in, this film will prove to be illuminating to the urbanites that pegged rural Americans as gun-toting, racist, and ignorant. Howard does a good job in his adaptation at seeking to show certain realities from the working class Appalachian culture (drugs, guns, violence) while also trying to prove that underneath it all are suffering human beings. This is achieved thanks to a spectacular cast, which are given a solid-enough script and some free-rein direction.
I have to say it is hard to say which performer surprised me most. At this point I should stop being amazed with the versatility and transformations that each subsequent Close role brings us; but it took me a while to figure out that Memaw was her. She brings about such a reality and naturalness to her performance that it allows for a certain credibility, setting a canvas where she can let out an emotional punch when she decides to break out dramatically. Meanwhile, Adams is cast completely against the type. I have to say it took me a bit to buy into her not being her typecast sweet character, and instead was a broken and ruthless woman. As the film went on, however, Adams’ performance was so intense and committed that I forgot about the actress interpreting her and was engulfed by the character. On another level I was pleased with the solid and somewhat thankless performance from both Asztalos and Basso, who are forced to act as surrogates for viewers into this world and culture. Both actors are able to keep a relatability while also developing their own unique arcs.
Hillbilly Elegy is successful at giving us a snapshot at the America that has slowly been abandoned and decaying with rising prices of education and healthcare, and the meager labor opportunities. It is no accident that the film found financing and was made during Donald Trump’s presidency, as it is clearly showing a strong demographic that has made up his voter base. But while the film shows us the problems that these communities are facing and humanizes the people around them, it fails to explore further into the roots and causes of their situation. Howard is too timid, not asking the big question of why has much as he is just showing what. This leaves the story to seem superficial, like a documentary with visuals but no narration.
Without added context, Hillbilly Elegy can be interpreted very differently depending on one’s background knowledge and information on certain subjects. This in itself doesn’t so much help in bridging the divide between the “elite Netflix-watchers” and those that the film seeks to portray. A special episode titled “Rue” from Euphoria (2019-), was able to do exactly that, airing only a week ago, using nothing but a dialogue between two characters in a diner. There, creator Sam Levinson was able to go further into the aspects of addiction and depression and its roots and causes in less than an hour. Hillbilly Elegy plays it too safe, staying with more repeated examples of what life is like for these Americans, rather than taking time analyze and dissect them. I understand that some directors and artists choose to leave things open-ended in order for viewers to discuss them after viewings; but with this particular issue there is so much disinformation and prejudices abound, that not providing context risks this becoming a lit match in a gas-drenched landscape.
Overall I don’t wish to put too much responsibility to bridging of the polarized America on Hillbilly Elegy’s shoulders; but to take on such a subject also leads to a certain duty and burden to properly inform viewers. Howard is able to craft a rather potent narrative, slightly diverted by some uneven editing, yet overall held up with strong individual scenes and spectacular performances particularly from Adams and Close. Both actresses are the most nominated performers in the Academy Awards history that have yet to win a statuette. Given their performances here, it seems nigh time a little golden man is added to their mantlepieces.