Sometimes a film is condemned beforehand by prejudices against it. Sometimes critics are eager to beat a dead horse as a form of validation for the work done. Based on the controversial memoir by J. D. Vance, HILLBILLY ELEGY (2020) had barely a chance to get fair appreciation, whether the film was effectively narrated (screenplay by Vanessa Taylor), well-directed (by Hollywood veteran Ron Howard) and with impeccable performances by two of the best living actress in the industry (Amy Adams and Glenn Close). Instead, the film was released on Netflix preceded by a cloud of negative reviews.
There’s some context that cannot be ignored to understand why: the novel was published in 2016 by the time Donald Trump became president of the United States of America, stirring many debates because it was a book highly politicized with conservative ideas, preaching about the reasons that made poor people from rural communities across the country (hillbillies or rednecks as they are called pejoratively) to vote for the Republican candidate. However, it was also a family saga and an inspiring story of personal triumph in which the author narrates his personal experience as someone who growth in those communities reflecting how he was able to move on to becoming a lawyer, graduate from Yale.
Politics aside, what makes it to the screen in the film adaptation was the story of human interest about a man and his family overcoming obstacles. The ideological component of the book was mostly suppressed, but this omission wasn’t enough for many critics, while for others it is the reason to reject it vehemently. Sadly, this perception about Howard’s movie is influenced by political bias, inheriting the original detractors of the book and creating new ones specifically for the film, has prevented a right appreciation for the sake of its artistic merits (more than a few indeed). For anyone willing to watch it beyond the exhausting political discussion will probably find a much better movie than expected.
HILLBILLY ELEGY follows J. D. (Owen Azatalos as a child, Gabriel Basso as an adult) and his family on the intimate journey of their complicated lives in Ohio over the years, from 1997 to 2013. As a grown man, a war veteran from Iraq who is studying at Yale, J. D. is at a crossroad in his life just about to get everything that he has dreamed to that point: a job in a renowned firm, a future with the woman he loves (Freida Pinto) and a definitive rupture with the cycle of abuse, violence, and poverty that defined his family history. The past is never so far as we presumed, and for J. D. it haunts him as a warning when he gets an urgent call in the middle of an important dinner for his career. His sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett) informs him that their mother Beverly (Amy Adams) suffered an overdose of heroin. Moral responsibility and blood ties oblige him to face that painful past driving back to Ohio. What he has escaped before is now something that demands a reconciliation, but he could get lost in the road too and compromise everything that he has achieved so far if he doesn’t return in time for an interview. This is a movie full of metaphors about highways and moving cars.
If J. D. is the narrative excuse that put in motion the gear of memory and history, moving back and forth in time to portray different members from the Vance family, the movie finally belongs to the women that weren’t able to have a better life but their mark on the protagonist was essential to the formation of his identity. Besides Bev and Lindsay, there is the unforgettable Mamaw (Glenn Close), the severe matriarch and grandmother who takes care of her grandson in a time when her daughter wasn’t fit to complete the job. Bev is a victim of circumstance and a bearer of bad decisions messed by drug addiction, failed relationships with multiple men, and terrible losses like the death of her father or her nurse license. Amy Adams dig deeper in her remarkable performance allowing us to feel sorry for Bev, even when she is unlikable and easy to hate. If Mamaw is now an excellent grandmother is because she is well aware of her failures as a mother, so the boy is an opportunity to amend the future of their family. Early on we learn that Mamaw and Papaw escaped from Kentucky when she was 13 years old pregnant, driving to a new life that didn’t represent much improvement.
I would like to defend HILLBILLY ELEGY as a compelling film without ignoring the flaws that justify some of the criticism that attracted it. The melodramatic tone is sometimes too much to handle, while the conservative values remain tendentious no matter the transparency in the transfer from book to film (or even more dangerous because of that). The core of the story tackles poverty as an insular problem that anyone could surpass or don’t concerning their faculties and the personal will in wanting to do it. The movie doesn’t cover properly the social and cultural factors that usually interferes with any wish of advancement or prosperity people try to sustain after greatest efforts and the noblest intentions. However, it is unfair to ignore the value behind this sensitive portrayal of a particular “otherness” that Hollywood cinema has not bothered to explore beyond prejudices and caricature, an honorable look on deprived people backed by their own tradition and culture as in the case of Appalachians (or people from the mountains). Also, there is a lot to admire in terms of craft and storytelling in the commands of a controlled filmmaker that remains underrated even as an Academy Award winner working in the industry for many decades.
Ron Howard has made a drama that never feels static or boring, even if there’s an old-fashioned sensibility in play that serves perfect for the material (I can imagine how this film would have been a major hit for adult audiences two decades back in time). HILLBILLY ELEGY is animated by an intern rhythm and poetry punctuated by creative decisions in cinematography (Maryse Alberti), editing (James D. Wilcox), music (Hans Zimmer and David Fleming), and camera work. Even the song choices are used wisely with the effects of amplification or distortion when a character is in a mood or about to make a wrong turn. One of the small virtues of the film is those constant scenes of moving cars as an opportunity to observe from its windows the vibrating, violent, and precarious adjacent lives that surround the world inhabited by the Vance family. Their story is the story of so many others.
Ron Howard will always be judged with suspicion because of his privileges (a child-actor, son of parents in the industry, turned Hollywood filmmaker), especially for a film about poor people in America. He is usually a creator of idealistic, well-intentioned films with a positive faith in humanity (APOLLO 13 (1995), A BEAUTIFUL MIND (2001), CINDERELLA MAN (2015)). That shouldn’t be perceived as a deficiency, and maybe for that reason, he is the perfect director for HILLBILLY ELEGY, because he can frame these initially miserable lives in a country of possibilities where the American dream is still a worthy ideal, always in a fight with its contradictions (similar theme in another of his most underrated films, the stellar FAR AND AWAY (1995)).
Considering how difficult and occasionally unbearable these characters could be because of their behavior and decisions, makes me think about Roger Ebert’s plea about movies as a machine for empathy. You don’t necessarily have to identify yourself with those characters, you may not like them if you met them in the real world, but a film can catch your attention for them, to understand those lives in another light. That mighty compassion is exactly what Howard, and the actors get right with this complicated material. If this is not what is called good movies these days, something that deserves more than disapproval or damnation, then I don’t know what can be because what is missing, or offensive is no longer in the art to blame.