Do you remember Benefits Street? British readers will almost certainly recall the Channel 4 documentary series from 2014 and the avalanche of column inches following its airing. The show depicted the underprivileged residents of James Turner Street in Birmingham, where it was reported that 90% of residents were claiming some form of government benefits. Viewers abused the subjects on social media, the commentariat pontificated about “poverty porn” and nobody even began to tackle the problems which forced these people into their challenging circumstances. “It’s probably their own stupid fault,” came the clarion call.
I thought about this a lot while watching Ron Howard’s new Netflix drama Hillbilly Elegy – poverty porn from the other side of the Atlantic. The movie, which was tapped as an awards contender before release, is adapted from the 2016 memoir by J.D. Vance, played in the film by Gabriel Basso. Much like Benefits Street, the fact it’s based on truth doesn’t prevent it from feeling like a rather horrifying and misguided cartoon portrayal of working-class life.
The movie flits between two time periods. There’s the adult Vance attending law school at Yale, dealing with his mother Bev (Amy Adams) relapsing into heroin addiction on the eve of a crucial interview for him to secure a lucrative summer internship. Meanwhile, flashbacks to the late 1990s show a teenage Vance (Owen Asztalos) pinballing between the powerful personalities of his mother and the beloved grandmother he knows as Mamaw (Glenn Close).
Regret is a common thread, as is the grim after-taste of missed opportunity. The movie frames both Mamaw, who fell pregnant at 13, and Bev, who was 18 when she had her first child, as women still struggling with misjudgements they made as young people. Their thesis, and that of the film, seems to be that escape from poverty is possible, provided you’re willing to pull your socks up and work for it. It’s a distinctly conservative argument and one that doesn’t really ring true today any more than it did four years ago when Vance’s book was as widely criticised as it was acclaimed by others.
The fact this is a man’s take on his story is significant, particularly as the book was quickly anointed as an explanation of Trumpland. In order to facilitate the generalisations of the central argument, both Bev and Mamaw become pencil-sketched caricatures, coloured in with wigs, prosthetics, and dialogue that’s always 50 decibels louder than it ought to be. Close and Adams are both screen legends and so can’t help but make certain sequences work, but there are diminishing returns on Adams’s over-cranked drawl and Close’s habit of glowering madly from behind her absurd, Dennis Taylor spectacles.
Everything about the film is cranked up to the point of parody. The old chestnut of cutlery etiquette and drink options (“They had two different kinds of white wine. It’s like a test.”) as a shorthand for class division is certainly present and correct, and that’s all the film has. Howard directs both Kentucky and Ohio with a wistful, summery glow, creating a working class milieu without any sense of the discomfort and desperation that drives these people into addiction and hardship. Certainly, the rougher edges of Bev’s destructive habits and Mamaw’s violent household are smoothed off to the point of losing all effect.
The effect is presumably supposed to evoke the inevitable rose-tinting of memory – an effect which here makes the arguments even muddier and less convincing. Vance seems to be a bona fide example of the American Dream in action – and good for him – but it’s deeply misguided for him to claim everyone else can achieve the same by simply gritting their teeth and working for it. As much as Howard might want us to think so, many in America and the UK need more than a familial kick up the arse to ascend the crumbling rungs of the poverty ladder.
Dir: Ron Howard
Scr: Vanessa Taylor
Cast: Gabriel Basso, Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Haley Bennett, Owen Asztalos, Freida Pinto, Bo Hopkins
Prd: Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Karen Lunder
DOP: Maryse Alberti
Music: David Fleming, Hans Zimmer
Run time: 116 minutes
Hillbilly Elegy is available on Netflix from 24 November.