Hillbilly Elegy

Gutsy female lead performances lift all boats in this tale of backwoods America that is both vilified and embraced by a polarised public

M, 116 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

Hillbilly Elegy, the book about growing up among white working-class communities in the Appalachians, was published in 2016. It was the year that Donald Trump became US President, a disruptive event if ever there was one.

Read avidly by a public searching for answers that helped explain the success of Trumpism, it became a New York Times bestseller. And it gave its author, J. D. Vance, profile as a social commentator, explaining Americans to themselves.

How could someone like Trump occupy the highest office in the land? Perhaps the autobiography of a man like Vance who came to have a foot in both camps, establishment and anti-establishment, could make some sense of it.

He eventually left the hill country of Kentucky for the hallowed halls of Yale and then joined the financial services industry in LA, but he was an unusual case.

His family home was in Middletown, Kentucky. J. D. was the son of a single mother who took heroin, stole meds from the hospital where she worked as a nurse, and unsurprisingly couldn’t hold a job. Eventually his grandmother took over primary care, and against the odds he finished high school and took a law degree.

The narrative is simply structured, moving backwards and forwards between J. D’s teenage and young adult selves, played by Owen Asztalos and Gabriel Basso, respectively.

Scenes of young J. D. growing up with his sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett) in their utterly chaotic household, is intercut with his older self, moving away from Middleton and building a new life with his supportive girlfriend and wife-to-be, former law school classmate, Usha, played by Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire).

Bent and bewigged, Glenn Close is almost unrecognizable as family matriarch Mamaw, J. D.’s maternal grandmother. As tough as old boots, with a ciggie permanently planted between her lips, Mamaw understands that she has to act to save her grandson.

One day, she just marches in, announcing she is taking J. D. away. His mother, her daughter Beverley (Amy Adams), was doing such a terrible job.

Basso, as the older version of J. D., has a more conventional and less challenging part to play than the actor who plays his younger self.

As the young J. D. Vance, Owen Asztalos articulates the complexity of his love-hate relationship with his mother. Bev was a woman who dragged him from one live-in relationship to the next, substituted his urine specimen sample for her own when she had been on drugs, and thought nothing of making a spectacle of herself in the street while she was having a meltdown. Family violence remained an ongoing tradition.

Volatile and quick-tempered, Beverley is also acutely aware of the opportunities that she has missed out on. Adams gives a remarkable performance here.

Curiously, Hillbilly Elegy is as much the story of J. D. as the story of his mother Beverley, who couldn’t realise her own promise as dux of her school year. J. D. is dangerously close to convincing himself, until Mamaw steps in, that his mother’s grades got her nowhere, so why should he make any effort?

Director Ron Howard, a versatile filmmaker across a range of genre, has a long list of acting credits among his body of work. His unobtrusive directorial style allows scope for actors to do what they do, as they have here in Hillbilly Elegy.

Howard has form in bringing out the best in his actors in films such as A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13 and Cinderella Man, too. I think one of his underrated triumphs is the film Rush about the rivalry between Formula One drivers played by Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl.

Hillbilly Elegy has the familiar clean style and high production values that I associate with Howard.

The score composed by Hans Zimmer, in collaboration with David Fleming, is more subtle than the usual from Zimmer. And French director of cinematography, Maryse Alberti, has struck a balance between the need for intimacy and wider statement.

Upward mobility in the US, is not like it used to be and if the American dream still works well for some, it certainly doesn’t for others.

This is ultimately a family drama, and the remarkable, inspiring tale of a young man, seriously disadvantaged as a complete establishment outsider, who manages to do good.

First published in the Canberra Times on  14 November 2020

Featured image: Superb performances from Glenn Close and Amy Adams in Hillbilly Elegy. Courtesy Netflix