In an early scene of Hillbilly Elegy, our protagonist, J.D. Vance, is at a catered three-course meal desperately trying to differentiate between the silverware positioned before him. It’s a familiar shorthand in film, indicating that J.D. is an outsider blindly wading into the upper echelons of society. And that is largely what Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy is, a series of familiar tropes flashing on our screens, recognisable images of rural, American poverty half-heartedly constructing a flimsy story.

Hillbilly Elegy is an adaptation of Vance’s memoir which generated a lot of conversation in 2016 for exploring a working-class Appalachian family – the very people overlooked by politicians in Washington. Yet the film is staunchly uninterested in offering any political commentary, preferring to offer more genial, non-specific ideas of working hard and escaping your past. There are moments when Hillbilly Elegy seems poised to offer nuanced criticism and retreats to tired concepts; the protagonist desperately trying to ascertain which fork to use at the fancy dinner.

Howard puts together an all-star cast, including the likes of Amy Adams and Glenn Close. Yet these actresses’ impressive commitment only serves to highlight the hollowness of the dialogue. In particular, Adams carries a certain intensity into her roles, and when that is accompanied by an unfocused script her pointedness only makes this caricature more brazenly one dimensional. Close is given more room to shine, but even then, the character of Mamaw is frequently reduced to trite sayings.

Hillbilly Elegy is largely uninterested in really interrogating the ideas implicit in the story. It fails to thoughtfully grapple with class, the American dream or what it means to be haunted by familial trauma. Instead, it leans into loud, generic moments of familial strife. Not even Amy Adams or Glenn Close can save this film from its broad and careless story.



CAST: Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Gabriel Basso, Haley Bennett

DIRECTOR: Ron Howard

WRITER: Vanessa Taylor

SYNOPSIS: J.D. Vance rushes from Yale to visit his mother in hospital, where he is forced to confront his family’s history.