Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy ½

"I've had about all the Kentucky I can take."

or, The Unbearable Whiteness of Being

What the shit, Netflix? Jesus lord, make it stop.

What was once a timely if briefly revealing look at "the forgotten America" and the elusive Heartland we coastal elites had ignored, J.D. Vance's 2016 book Hillbilly Elegy became a runaway bestseller and the memoir that journalists lauded, Oprah praised, and bleeding heart liberals saw as a glimpse into the heroin-inflicted and poverty-stricken backwoods redneck Trump voter… with whom we could sympathize.

The kind of White trash yokels who beat their (and other people's) children, overdose when they're bored, and threaten to kill their pets on the daily. These are things that all happen in director Ron Howard's newest garbage fire. I'm not here for it but I am here to destroy this disaster of a movie.

J.D., a law student at Yale -- played by Gabriel Basso as an adult, Owen Asztalos as a teen -- looks back on his life as he aims for the next step of his career. With family from Kentucky and raised in small town Ohio, J.D. grew up in harsh conditions with an abusive mother (Amy Adams) and trash-talking Mamaw (Glenn Close). When his sister calls that his mother has overdosed on heroin, J.D. tells his girlfriend Usha (Freida Pinto) that he must return to Middletown, Ohio and care for her. It's been years since he's been home and blah blah blah I don't feel like finishing this summary fuck this movie.

Here Ron Howard and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor have taken a flawed book and stripped it of any nuance or salient point. Vance's memoir already skimmed over any systemic issues and excoriated the welfare state in place of excuses for the "White working class" and the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps fairy tale of capitalism that low-information voters are swindled by every four years. And in the movie version, there's no chance of retrospection or criticism, just woe-is-me horseshit for racists and racist-adjacents, tear-jerker tales of asinine platitudes and wrong turns of fate, and sad sacks of shit not worth your pity.

This script is brutal. It twists every cliché of Appalachia into lame stories of White loss and ne'er-do-wells. The only Black people shown are hospital patients, drug dealers, or criminals. Imagined scenes of class polarization -- not present in Vance's book -- serve to prove that Howard and Taylor are incapable of real insight into this culture or society. As David Sims writes, this simple Hollywood narrative has no big ideas, "a think-piece trap," inauthentic cartoonish portrayals of people who fail at earning any empathy.

A dreary, cluelessly condescending, "mountain people" pity party, Hillbilly Elegy is poverty porn with no merit. A janky screenplay jumping back and forth through time with no direction or thematic linkage, career worst performances from every actor cast, and a collection of corn-fed bullshit adding up to far less than the sum of its parts, signifying nothing.

Added to Ron Howard ranked.
Added to The Narrative Films of 2020, ranked.
Added to When Good Directors Make Bad Movies.
Added to 2021 Academy Awards nominees, ranked.

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