Review: Hillbilly Elegy (15)

Arnojya Shree reviews Ron Howard's newest controversial biopic

Arnojya Shree
2nd December 2020
I don't always cry in the movies, but when I do, it's for 2-hours straight. Now I don't mean to scare you off, but biographical flicks have a way of getting to me. Ever since I was a child, the journey of someone's life held me in an addictive way; almost as if I was the one being addressed. Hillbilly Elegy felt pretty similar to that; intimate, vulnerable and hopeful.

The film is based upon J.D. Vance's book, "Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis." It follows the story of J.D. Vance's life as a Yale Law student who is about to thrust forward into his career but has to face his Appalachian past due to his mother, Bev Vance's hospitalisation. Directed by Ron Howard, the film features Owen Asztalos and Gabriel Basso as the teenage and adult J.D. Vance, respectively. Amy Adams as Bev Vance, and Glenn Close in the role of Mawmaw.

The film has been harshly criticised on the grounds of being far removed from the reality of the book, and from failing to depict the working class properly. In response to the criticism, Close and Adams went on to declare the film as "universal" and "transcending politics", where the creative intent of Howard was to present the story of a family rather than highlighting its political grounds.

Image: IMDb

Asztalos, Basso, Adams and Close have given some of the best performances I have seen in cinema in 2020 and in their entire filmography; embodying their characters to a borderline concerning state for me, as an audience. Apart from cultural politics, the story focuses on generational trauma, addiction, abandonment, abuse, and severe mental health problems.

However, narratives also have a way of being brave which is a trait hard to muster and master as a human being actually living through things. If brave-heart stories go wrong, they put themselves into a superhuman position and in that exalted position, move beyond the reach of audiences. On the other hand, if done right, they look you right in the eye and tell you what you need to hear, even as they tremble in fear of failure. Hillbilly Elegy situates itself in the latter position.

For me, it became the story of a family pushing through the dark constantly

Despite the harsh criticism, the film had gripped my senses to such an intensity that I found myself relating to the Vance family through a whole another lens. For me, it became the story of a family pushing through the dark constantly, and who often assumed responsibility when the other person just couldn't carry on.

The relationship between Mawmaw and J.D., in particular, has its way of making the audience see the story from a whole new perspective. Whilst people remain free to express their opinions, one must remember that one narrative could be viewed in a million different ways just because a million different people are watching it.

Rating: 4/5

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