Rarely has a film been released with such bizarre impertinency to its political climate as Hillbilly Elegy. Depicting the period between 1997 and 2011, director Ron Howard has adapted a 2016 book that was relevant for a few years thereafter. It’s a thoroughly respectable project about people we’re usually led to believe are disrespectable, a safe and simplistic film about drug abuse, domestic violence and attempted suicide, an R-rated drama too coarse for your granny and too uncool for the kids. An utter mess, this is less an elegy than a hideously ill-advised mashup, like an amateur DJ’s fumbled first attempt behind the decks.

Only this isn’t the work of an amateur. It’s the work of an Academy Award-winning industry legend with nearly four decades’ directing under his belt. Howard has never been less than a safe pair of hands, though he’s never been more than that either. Sometimes a project calls for safety to be thrown to the wind – Hillbilly Elegy is brimming over with outrageous content, from disturbing real-life traumas to atrocious, memorable dialogue and to its weirdly side-lined political undercurrents. Howard is exactly the wrong man to helm a ship this unsteady. It’s begging to be sullied, dragged under the waves of quasi-camp luridness that wash over it in scene after ridiculous scene, yet Howard keeps it sailing faithfully along, barely causing a ripple.

What does that achieve? It’s a disconcerting and, ultimately, forgettable mix of styles and themes and motifs whose innately disconcerting nature makes their forgettability here all the more memorable, in fact. Hillbilly Elegy is a paradox, both one thing and another, neither one thing nor another. Anything you want it to be it assuredly can be, or anything you want it not to be it certainly won’t be, depending on how much good will you’re prepared to afford it. Virtually everything in the film adheres to this strangely pliant quality. So Amy Adams is alternately superb and underwhelming in the same gesture; Glenn Close is alternately astonishing and grating in the same frenzied facial contortion; Vanessa Taylor’s screenplay is alternately true to life and totally risible in the same line.

J.D. Vance’s 2016 so-called memoir has been derided since publication for its facile contrivances; the account of his childhood leant heavily on his hillbilly heritage but depicted instead a lower middle-class urban upbringing blighted by his mother’s addiction and mental illness. Vance romanticizes his extended family’s rural Kentucky lifestyle, yet plainly reveals his hypocrisy by his open disdain for it, writing from the perspective of a Yale graduate now working in politics in Washington, D.C. Howard only briefly touches on these nagging inconsistencies, but their impact can’t be avoided in the film’s constant condescension and in its misunderstanding of the issues it covers.

Objectively, it’s a lot easier to tell the story of a family beset by one problem after another if one dispenses with the root causes of the problems and deals simply with working them out. Yet this oversimplification – endemic to this film – betrays every character except Vance himself, presented as the sole figure of true, pure moral superiority solely because he has his sights set on upward social mobility. Poverty and those who can’t escape it are depicted as villainous and harmful, a lower middle-class lifestyle is equated with deprivation and social rot and, most egregiously, honest hard work and respect are posited as the only legitimate strategy toward achieving that noblest of personal goals: wealth and status. Either no-one involved noticed that our heterosexual, cisgender, Christian, able-bodied, white, male protagonist relied throughout on the unrewarded efforts of his elderly grandmother, his sick mother, his embattled sister (Haley Bennett, the film’s lone note of emotional sincerity) or his brown-skinned girlfriend (Freida Pinto in a role so bad she’d be forgiven quitting acting altogether), always prepared to jump to his call for his sake alone, or no-one wanted to admit that they’d noticed.

The narrative that the media has fed us since 2016, when it suddenly felt it had neglected the voices of America’s white working class, has been that these people are as worthy of cultural representation as the rest of us. It’s a genuine, justifiable narrative, though Hillbilly Elegy doesn’t so much signal an overcorrection as a short-sighted misreading. Vance’s family are no more hillbillies than you or I, and his laser-focused obsession with escaping his hardly-lowly background and ascending to the upper echelons of American society makes his pithy exaltations of their way of life ring entirely hollow and makes his observations on that way of life seem patronizing.

That Hillbilly Elegy doesn’t dare delve into the reasons behind his family’s difficulties – the economic deprivation that has led to the cultural erosion, the addiction epidemic, the physical and emotional abuse, the criminality, the poverty – tells you all you need to know about the one aspect of Vance’s life that the film doesn’t want you to know. His concern isn’t for these left behind souls, it’s for his bank account. His successful political career? Working for the Republican Party. This might have sounded like a worthy story to tell four years ago, but no longer.

An absurd mish-mash of thematic contradictions, terrible dialogue and overblown acting, the most notable thing about this would-be wild ride is how dull it is.
30 %
Silly Billies
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