Just in time for the (actual) Oscar season, Netflix is releasing the film adaptation of the controversial bestseller HILLBILLY ELEGY occasionally in US cinemas and worldwide on its streaming platform. But there is unlikely to be a shower of awards outside of the actor categories. We reveal why in our review.
OT: Hillbilly Elegy (USA 2020)
JD Vance (Gabriel Basso), a former Marine from southern Ohio and current law student at Yale, is on the verge of landing the dream job of his life when a family crisis calls him back to the home he wanted to forget. JD now has to deal with the complicated circumstances of his family from the Appalachians, including the difficult relationship with his addicted mother Bev (Amy Adams). With the help of the memories of his grandmother Mamaw (Glenn Close) – the feisty and brilliant woman who raised him – JD soon learns to accept the indelible mark his family has left on his own career.
On paper, the ingredients read excellently: The two-time Oscar-winning director Ron Howard (2002 for “A Beautiful Mind”) adapted the film with the help of Amy Adams (“American Hustle”) and Glenn Close (“The Nobel Prize Winner’s Wife”) the controversial bestseller “Hillbilly-Elegy” by JD Vance. Controversial because the memoirs of the lawyer from Appalachia still serve as an illustration of why a blustering non-politician like Donald Trump was able to be elected President of the United States in 2016. “Hllbilly-Elegy” portrays a society of outcasts and uses the crumbling infrastructure in the US hinterland to illustrate the motives of the former working-class clientele to vote for someone like Trump or to fall for his promises to create jobs and expand the transport system. The focus of the book is the author’s family; In around 300 pages he describes the difficult relationship with his mother and grandmother, he talks about the toxic relationship, about physical and psychological violence, but also about cohesion – and above all about how the economic collapse in his hometown influenced the family situation. Maybe everything would have been completely different if J.D.’s family hadn’t been constantly faced with the ruins of their existence…
Lindsay (Haley Bennett), grandmother Mamaw (Glenn Close) and brother JD (Owen Asztalos).
In USA, the book has the subtitle “The story of my family and a society in crisis” – the film does not. And there is every reason for that. Because screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (“Shape of Water – The Whisper of Water”) consistently leaves out any political subtext for the screen version. Now “Hillbilly Elegy” was never a “political book”, but rather derived its political overtones from the circumstances described. The conclusions about Trump’s success were never drawn by the author himself, but arose automatically later, as the US election took place and had its familiar outcome just a few months after publication. Maybe Taylor just didn’t want to follow the same line again, maybe she simply found the author’s family life more exciting – not every screen adaptation of a book has to slavishly stick to the original. The fact that Taylor pays no attention to the economic collapse surrounding J.D.’s family – or that you can only piece it together based on scenes like this one in which Grandma Mamaw is dependent on food stamps – is not a death sentence. Unfortunately, Taylor and director Ron Howard fail to do so (“In the Heart of the Sea”)to capture the living conditions of the Vance family in a true-to-life way and instead present a softened poverty porn with no character.
“Maybe Taylor just didn’t want to follow the same line again, maybe she simply found the author’s family life more exciting – not every screen adaptation of a book has to slavishly stick to the original.”
Without character because all illustrations of social and family suffering within the Vance family seem like a ticking off of genre-typical set pieces: drugs, abuse, violence and social exclusion find their counterpart in scenes that could come from any other film drama – except that most of them are of them usually focus on a conflict. They are either about drug abuse or alcoholism or Child abuse. In “Hillbilly Elegy,” on the other hand, it’s about everything and in the end it’s about nothing, because even if the events described here correspond to reality (the book is based on the author’s life story), all of these scenes clearly lack individuality . This is not least due to the fact that Vanessa Taylor’s script mainly moves from one violent event to the next. In “Hillbilly Elegy” there is constant nagging, threats, insults and hatred – and the cheesy superstructure of family cohesion has something bitterly cynical, almost manipulative. Taylor and Howard do reject the ultimate bigotry in the finale, but at the latest when private home video recordings show the supposed family idyll in the credits (and illustrate that the main actors really look damn similar to their role models thanks to masks and prostheses!), you can’t avoid it. to want to give a huge finger to the “blood is thicker than water” mantra that was even stated directly. The original actually manages to capture the complexity of the toxic family relationships, the street smarts of the main characters and the cohesion of the Vances despite all the dramatic events. The film, on the other hand, presents us with an exclusively repugnant interaction for almost two hours – and at the end still expects us to make JD feel guilty if he finally turns away from his mother at some point.
Mother and son (Gabriel Basso) on the verge of despair…
Given this background, Ron Howard’s shallow production is actually only consistent. Cinematographer Maryse Alberti (“Creed – Rocky’s Legacy”) and composers Hans Zimmer and David Fleming (who worked together on the “The Lion King” remake) dress “Hillbilly Elegy” in pleasing, sun-drenched images and an incongruously lavish score. The conditions in the film are not rough and dirty, but the epitome of Hollywood kitsch, for the sake of which no rough edges have been left out. This undoubtedly makes “Hillbilly Elegy” a remarkably entertaining and anything but unpleasant film to watch – which is almost cynical considering the grueling content. But the structure of present and past narrative, in which the common film credo “Show don’t tell” doesn’t seem to apply, but rather “Show and tell”, because everything, absolutely everything, has to be illustrated visually and also summarized from the off, something always happens on the screen (or the television screen). There is no idle time – and the associated moments in which you can process what is being shown. Something that can be honored, but which also says a lot about the misguided production. A film with this topic shouldn’t actually be catchy and – yes, not even that – entertaining. Symptomatic of this is the fictional narrative arc surrounding JD and his girlfriend Usha (Freida Pinto), whose relationship – like pretty much everything – is completely different than in the book.
“The conditions in the film are not rough and dirty, but the epitome of Hollywood kitsch, for the sake of which no rough edges have been left out.”
Last but not least, we have to take a look at the performances of the actors. The fact that “Hillbilly Elegy” was considered a hot Oscar candidate before its release is also due to the commitment of the two main actors. In fact, Amy Adams and Glenn Close play their hearts out here, even if they never seem to really get to the core of their characters. The grandmother’s wisdom remains just as unexploited as the mother’s madness. Complex characters become one-dimensional white trash clichés. According to the film, neither of them deserve anything else. Such an embodiment seems almost disrespectful to the role models. The two of them (or one of them) are only likely to win the Oscar if the Academy doesn’t do that again bestbut that most Acting award.
Conclusion: In the film adaptation of the bestseller “Hillbilly Elegy”, Ron Howard fails to capture the rough core of the original and instead presents us with a pleasant family drama that cynically tries to convince us that blood is always thicker than water.
“Hillbilly Elegy” is now available to stream on Netflix.