Ignore the critical pile-on; Ron Howard’s ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ is a fine film about poverty, perseverence, neglect and class

Listen up: Glenn Close plays a grandmother who’s not to be messed with in ‘Hillbilly Elegy’.

HILLBILLY ELEGY *** (116 minutes) M
A cluster of terrific performances grace the simple true-life story of a young man’s determination to escape the poverty of his Appalachian home and make it to law school.

Based on the best-selling 2016 memoir by JD Vance and directed with typical nous by veteran Ron Howard, the film is a jagged domestic drama full of tough truths as Vance (Gabriel Basso, with Owen Asztalos playing him as a boy) deals with a home life that presents relentless hardships, even when he thinks he is free of them.

Told in flashback, we see Vance making good at Yale Law School but desperate to land a job at a law firm to pay his huge bills. He’s trying hard to network with key people and hold his own against his privileged rivals, but his social skills aren’t up to scratch.

It’s bad enough he needs advice from his girlfriend Usha (Freida Pinto) about how to negotiate the cutlery layout at a swish dinner. But when a prospective employer makes a disparaging reference to those from the hills Vance voices his offense in an equally tactless manner. Their reaction offers a very neat nutshelling of the American class system.

Then comes a call that Vance’s mum (Amy Adams) has overdosed and that he needs to drop everything and go home to deal with things.

It’s a tortured decision. As the flashbacks illustrate, Vance has suffered at the whim of his horrible, abusive mother all his life. Now it looks like she’s going to spoil his chances at law school.

The only thing that gave Vance a shot was his grandmother (Glenn Close) who, against his protests, forced him to better himself. Looking like a heap of unwashed laundry, she’s a study in grizzled tough love, the type of woman whose good heart finds expression in growls and coercion rather than words of wisdom.

Adams and Close do great work as the combating influences in Vance’s life; the former the haggard embodiment of neglect and selfishness, the latter a figure of unpolished nobility resolved to negate the negativity of her own daughter by giving Vance the opportunity to move on and move out, something her ilk are not known for.

As Vance, Basso (best known for The Big C) shows us a young man who, having lived with disappointment all his life, fears he’s on the verge of hitting the biggest disappointment of all.

Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire) gives sturdy encouragement as the supportive girlfriend who mostly appears as the other end of harried iPhone calls. It’s a credit to Howard’s subtle direction that we sense through Vance’s verbal exchanges with her that he is simply not used to people being on his side.

By any fair account, Hillbilly Elegy is a fine, well-directed film, with a top-shelf cast putting in strong performances all in the service of a fairly simple, straightforward story about a man overcoming the adversity of poverty, bad mothering and low expectations to make something of himself.

Curiously, however, Hillbilly Elegy is the latest instance of seeing a film, then surveying the reviews and wondering if everybody else saw a different cut.

There has been a massive pile-on against the film that is hard to make sense of. It’s been so stinging Amy Adams, Glenn Close and Ron Howard have engaged in some valiant pushback.

Some speculation about what is going on suggests the conservative politics of memoir’s author, JD Vance, might be the trigger. Vance discusses politics in the book and has consequently become a noted commentator. Because the book came out in 2016 and was a best seller shortly before Donald Trump was elected president, the two events are seen as somehow related.

The thinking goes that liberal critics have taken their anti-Trump resentment out on the film, even though it contains no political content or commentary. And this is despite the fact the book, which had the politics, was widely praised and successful. It’s hard to figure.

That’s just a theory, of course.

What’s more likely is that Hillbilly Elegy is simply the latest example of the growing disconnect between critics and audiences. The film has proved a massive hit on Netflix and is already getting Oscar buzz for Amy Adams and Glenn Close.

Among the stupidest criticisms levelled at the film is the allegation that Hillbilly Elegy is “poverty porn”.

Huh? Or to invoke a popular phrase of the day: “What does that even mean?”

If “poverty porn” means reducing people to stereotypes so they can be exploited for cheap sentiment and mawkish melodrama, then that case needs to be made against Hillbilly Elegy – yet nothing in the film is exploitative. If it was, surely Glenn Close would have walked off the set.

There’s nothing condescending, demeaning or voyeuristic about the portrayal of poverty in the film. If anything, Hillbilly Elegy champions dignity over deprivation.

Furthermore, given how there has been no protest by the author over the adaptation by Howard and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (Oscar-nominated for The Shape of Water) presumably they didn’t stray too far from the truth.

So how is Hillbilly Elegy “poverty porn”?

The film has also been accused of being “Oscar bait” – another oft-used term that has virtually no meaning.

“Oscar bait” is supposed to refer to a menu of subjects, topics and issues habitually favoured by the Oscars, as though there is a formula cynical filmmakers can apply in order to gain nominations.

The trouble with this notion is that if it held there would be a deeply set pattern as the same types of films with the same types of content winning year after year with predictable regularity.

Yet survey the list of best film winners and nominations from the past 50 years and – guess what? – no pattern emerges. Yes, there are a few recurring themes but they are very sporadic.

Indeed, the variety of films favoured by Oscar over just the past decade shows up how the notion of “Oscar bait” is nonsense. It’s just a cliche lazy critics resort to when putting down a film they don’t like. (This reviewer has, of course, always been impervious to such temptation.)

To accuse Hillbilly Elegy of being “Oscar bait” you need to make the case. Yet there is no whiff of cynicism or sensationalism in what is a solid, fact-based domestic drama about poor people from the hills.

Whatever Oscar attention the film draws it won’t be due to Ron Howard applying a narrative template designed to tell anything other than an engaging, worthwhile story with homespun values that, perhaps, are too corny for some.

On Netflix