Flashback Issues: Our Review of ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ on Netflix

Posted in Movies, Netflix, What's Streaming? by - December 17, 2020
Flashback Issues: Our Review of ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ on Netflix

This cinematic adaptation of JD Vance’s pro-Trump memoir was an awards hopeful until it went online on Netflix. I don’t remember if this was ever trending on that streaming service. Every movie is in danger of being a movie of the week, but this one received that fate because of its critical sandbagging. Reputable outlets barely gave this film 200 words but we’ll do better than that. Other bad reviews, like one on Letterboxd, was so hateful that it almost made me want to a contrarian and like this. That’s until I watched the movie itself. That review faulted the actors, which is ridiculous since actors are great.

The fault here, then, lies on the attempt to depoliticize the source material while clobbering the group of people that it’s pretending to deify. That clobbering happens to an adult, fictional version of JD (Gabriel Basso). He’s a ‘hillbilly’ turned Yale Law Student, spending time in some mixer so that he can get a paying internship. He makes many faux pas, which include not knowing the different kinds of white wine or what forks to use. He also doesn’t know how to hold cutlery, which he should apparently do while doing the Pepe salute. This is when I stopped believing this film. Twenty minutes and it already doesn’t suspend disbelief. I know my white wines and I know my forks and I’m a dirty immigrant, he doesn’t have an excuse.

Viewers can find out about wines at a Walmart. Walmart had branches in Brazil in 1996 when JD was 12, they must have had branches in Ohio and Kentucky, where the film shows he spent his childhood. Also, one of the lawyers scouting interns picked Chardonnay which is the drink of closeted homosexuals. And Riesling, which is the best white wine, wasn’t even an option at this supposedly fancy party. Anyway, viewers can gain fork knowledge on Mexican soaps and on Downtown Abbey, which were both on when JD was in law school. Anyway, the film’s plot revolves around JD’s precarious nature at Yale. His place is more precarious since he has leave Interview Week.

JD must return and care for his mother, Bev (Amy Adams), who suffers from addiction issues. It then occasionally flashbacks to him as a teen (Owen Asztalos). Young JD experiences family gathering which can turn from sweet to sour within minutes. As another aside, this probably has the best soundtrack in a Ron Howard film. He adds levity to family gatherings and shoplifting scenes with songs from Whitney Houston, Ghosttown DJs, and Eagle Eye Cherry. The fact that working class whites listen to those artists is the most believable thing here. But I have the right to resent that those artists and/or their estate holders are getting cents worth of residuals from an adaptation of a racist book.

Most of the film, however, takes place during present day. And those scenes present a dumb version the white working class as it does with the coastal elites. Some scenes involve adult JD shunning his girlfriend Usha (Freida Pinto). He tells her over the phone that there’s no way she would want a heroin addict for a mother-in-law. Fair, but they both go to Yale, they have to know at least one drug addict there. Although there’s one hilarious scene where she corrects his English. Anyway, when he puts down the phone, he deals with Bev, his sister Lindsay (a condescendingly de-glammed Haley Bennett) while remembering their Mamaw (Glenn Close).

“Your people will have your back. That’s our code”. Those are Mamaw’s words about family, about her people, but there are no people here, just clichés. One last thing, I’d demote this adaptation if it showed these characters to be as racist as they are. The only whiff of that here is when Mamaw berates one of young JD’s loser third generation Polish friends. There’s a part of me here that thinks that hinting at these characters’ prejudices are worse than actually exposing their truths. I like Glenn Close films when she portrays aristocrats more than she does with proletarians, which probably betrays my own classist prejudices. She deserved an Oscar a long time ago, and thankfully she won’t win one here.

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While Paolo Kagaoan is not taking long walks in shrubbed areas, he occasionally watches movies and write about them. His credentials are as follows: he has a double major in English and Art History. This means that, for example, he will gush at the art direction in the Amityville house and will want to live there, which is a terrible idea because that house has ghosts. Follow him @paolokagaoan on Instagram but not while you're working.
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