On its surface, Hillbilly Elegy appears to be a story that America needs to see acknowledged, addressing the plight of the working class families left behind by the economics of the 21st century. The film’s themes of strained family relationships, addiction, and institutional bureaucracy feel more relevant than ever against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic. And with Ron Howard at the helm of a cast that includes Amy Adams and Glenn Close, it seems to be a perfect awards contender alongside other middle-America tales like 2017’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
But that is not the movie we were given.
Despite strong performances from the film’s top names, the final product is a meandering, hollow story whose message is as much of a relic as the culture it seeks to portray.
It’s clear that Hillbilly Elegy wants to tell an uplifting story about beating the odds and rising above our circumstances. But rather than offering a complex, character-driven story based on the conflicting motivations of the film’s deeply-flawed characters, we’re given a narrative that feels more stiff and didactic. Aaron Sorkin can usually get away with presenting malleable characters to fit a plot or a theme, but this is no Sorkin piece.
Adult J.D. (Gabriel Basso) is largely defined by the hardworking nature and rugged individualism of a typical capitalist hero. And rather than the Hallmark films where the big-city professional returns home to learn the true value of family, the stakes feel much more pragmatic. J.D. is called home to help solve a problem and then dismissed to return to “business as usual” before he turns into a pumpkin.
Whatever lesson he (or the audience) learns from his experience back home is muddled at best, and the impact to his character is left unresolved. And if his transformation from a wayward teenager into that hardworking law student is the intended focus, Howard’s stylistic choices similarly miss the mark.
In the end, the film’s apparent protagonist turns out to be something more abstract, like “the value of hard work” — in the same way that “religion” stars in films like God’s Not Dead to dominate the narrative. The actual protagonist, J.D., reveals himself to be little more than the hollowed-out vehicle of an ideology.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of a film focused on an overlooked region of America is just how little it appears to care about the people. Institutional roadblocks to upward mobility dominate the plot, and gatekeepers are presented with a generally shrugging indifference that apes the same kind of nameless figures that populated Todd Phillips’s Joker.
Similarly, both films choose to focus on the bureaucratic aspects of healthcare while also demonizing substance abuse and mental health issues. And while Joker nihilistically depicts the violent reaction to such a broken system, Hillbilly Elegy offers a toxic positivity about escaping the system through elbow grease.
Mamaw (Glenn Close), who provides much of the story’s nuance, dispenses some Appalachian wisdom on a rebellious, young J.D. (Owen Asztalos) when she tells him: “I don’t care you hate me. I ain’t in it for popularity. You gotta take care of business, go to school, get good grades to even have a chance.” The tough love resonates within the scene due to Close’s performance, but the message — especially within the larger context of the story and the characters — ultimately comes across as tone deaf as J.D. leaves behind those who didn’t get the chance.
The resolution to Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey” comes when the hero, having traveled beyond the borders of his home, returning home to share his newfound wisdom. And while we can forgive a character like Joker for failing to satisfy those kinds of narrative archetypes, Hillbilly Elegy comes up short without adding anything interesting or new to the conversation.