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Hillbilly Elegy review: irresponsible and irredeemable

Rating: 1 out of 5.

What a strange time we live in, when the sequel to Borat (2006) is one of the best films of the year, and an Oscar-baiting rural American drama by esteemed director Ron Howard is one of the worst. There is very little to say about Hillbilly Elegy. There isn’t a snarky, witty comment that it can be summarised in, because the film isn’t engaging enough to warrant it, in either a positive or negative way. Nor is it a film that is so bad it could be funny – it’s just bad. And boring. And painfully clichéd. And shameless in all of the above. 

Please do not watch this film.

Off to a Bad Start 

Hillbilly Elegy is the story of a rural American kid who grows up, joins the Marines, goes to Yale, and is forced to return to rural Ohio to deal with his mother’s addiction problems. The story is told out of sync, meaning it flashes back every few minutes to our protagonist’s childhood, purporting to reveal more about life in rural America as the story comes together. Flashbacks are often repeated, or painfully drawn out, meaning that by the time the film ends, almost nothing has happened. There are no intriguing parallels between past and present – this film is simply the excruciating exploration of an exceptionally boring and stereotyped story.

The beginning and ending of this film are the worst offenders. We begin with a corny speech about the American Dream, followed by several minutes of narration from our protagonist, J.D, which is as monotone and forced as a toothpaste advert. But the ending is shockingly worse. Hillbilly Elegy, for two painful hours, wallows around in the unoriginal idea that the American Dream is inaccessible for rural America. J.D. encounters clichéd rich snobs and nepotism at Yale. His cold and snarky dean won’t help him financially. The hospital won’t let his uninsured mother stay. All of this is delivered with the subtlety of a brick to the face, making the film mostly dull and predictable. This is a theme that other films have explored countless times before with genuine nuance, but Hillbilly Elegy delivers it in the blandest way possible.

Yet the ending of Hillbilly Elegy, desperate to pull itself out of the quagmire of poverty porn, does a blinding U-turn. Through a series of on-screen title cards, and nothing more, we learn all the problems of the film have been resolved, despite most of its characters being beyond the pale.  The film shows just how much it cares about the themes of social mobility, or addiction, or family by throwing away any meaning in search of an Oscar-friendly happy ending. It is shameless.

Wasted Talent

Amy Adams – an incredibly talented actress – is difficult to watch as J.D’s tormented mother Beverly. She lurches from hackneyed melodrama to…more melodrama, to the point that simply seeing her on screen is a chore. Something went very wrong with her direction – the film might not be interested in the causes and nuances of addiction, but she might have been able to get something meaningful from the role. Glenn Close isn’t too shabby as a stubborn rural grandma, but her character is a fairly bland stereotype from the get-go. For whatever reason, the very talented Frieda Pinto is in this film, existing solely to be a cheerleader for J.D and having no personality beyond likeability. It’s difficult to see such a great cast contribute to such an irredeemable film. Hillbilly Elegy is not a film that tries to genuinely understand rural American culture, addiction, or social mobility. It refuses to move beyond cliché and melodrama, creating a work that is soppy, miserable, and above all boring.

Image: William Morris via Needpix