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Film review: Hillbilly Elegy

PUBLISHED: 10:08 16 November 2020 | UPDATED: 10:08 16 November 2020

HILLBILLY ELEGY: (L to R) Haley Bennett (

HILLBILLY ELEGY: (L to R) Haley Bennett ("Lindsay), Glenn Close ("Mama),Owen Asztalos ("Young J.D. Vance"). Photo Cr. Lacey Terrell/NETFLIX © 2020

2020 © NETFLIX

Ron Howard’s screen adaptation of J.D. Vance’s potentially interesting memoir about growing up poor, serves up the standard sentimental fare about family

HILLBILLY ELEGY: (L to R) Glenn Close (HILLBILLY ELEGY: (L to R) Glenn Close ("Mamaw) Amy Adams (Bev). Photo Cr. Lacey Terrell/NETFLIX © 2020

Ron Howard’s screen adaptation of J.D. Vance’s best selling memoir is unlike most Hollywood based-on-true-story projects in that you do believe that the story is true – because it’s dull enough to have actually happened.

It’s not an uninteresting story. Raised in Ohio, Vance is of Kentucky Appalachian stock born to a single mother. (Adams) Yet despite his humble and chaotic upbringing, he got into Yale to study law. In the film though this translates into a series of vignettes that might pass a few minutes as Doyouremeberthattimewhen reminiscences at a family gathering, but aren’t going to hold a movie audience.

And, let’s be honest, Out Of Adversity A Lawyer Was Born! isn’t one of the great inspirational narratives.

The film flicks back and forth between teenage Vance (Asztalos) and the grown-up version, Basso. Teen Vance and his sister (Bennett), try to hold it together as their volatile mother Adams throws violent tantrums and flits between a variety of jobs, boyfriends and addictions. Looking out for them is granny Close – looking like a reptilian Mrs Merton – who is tough and foulmouthed but mostly loving.

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Framing this is Big Vance at Yale in the middle of series of potentially career-defining job placement interviews having to drive back home because his mother has overdosed on heroin.

I went into this knowing nothing about J.D. and his book, which I took to be another misery memoir. Turns out it’s a conservative political tract in which Vance argues that Appalachian and other rustbelt poor are kept down by their own culture and values.

Which sounds like another self-made man kicking the ladder away after he’s climbed up it spiel but when the book came out during the 2016 election campaign, Vance was seen as a conservative that liberals could get on with.

But absolutely none of that it is the film. If anything the film flips the message. The book argues that poor working-class people need to break the cycle of violence and verbal abuse passed down the generations. The film just offers up the standard slop about family mattering more than anything.

2/5 stars

Starring Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Haley Bennett, Gabriel Basso, Bo Hopkins, Owen Asztalos and Freida Pinto. Streaming on Netflix from Nov 24. Running time: 116 mins.

Got to www.halfmanhalfcritic.com for a review of Arrow Video’s 4K Ultra HD/ Blu-ray/DVD release of Christopher Walken gangster pic King of New York.


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