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Ron Howard defends movie ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ against negative reviews from liberals

Actor and director Ron Howard fired back at liberal critics of his latest movie, “Hillbilly Elegy,” after reviews indicated it lacked the political edge of the memoir it’s based on. The movie is in limited release and airs on Netflix. Howard objects to political thematics that some are trying to attribute to the movie.

The movie stars Glenn Close and Amy Adams. It is an adaptation of the 2016 memoir by J.D. Vance that dwells on Appalachian life and the strife his family felt when confronted with things such as addiction, the social problems present in their hometown, and the poverty cycle that kept them going.

The film follows Vance (played by Gabriel Basso and Owen Asztalos) and his close relatives — including his grandmother Mamaw (Close) and mother, Bev (Adams) — as they navigate drug addiction, familial tension, and poverty during his childhood before he received a degree from Yale.

The film has been heavily criticized for taking an apolitical approach to the story and carefully removing elements that tackled the opioid crisis and a system that’s seemingly designed to keep people like Vance’s family poor. Critics blame Howard for only portraying a rich person’s idea of a poor family without the context of the social and political issues that surround them. But according to Howard, that was not his intent and they are missing the point of the movie.

Howard appeared with author and venture capitalist J.D. Vance on “CBS This Morning” on Tuesday. He was questioned about the criticism of his movie and he said that he believes people, especially those who were enamored with the book when it came out at a turbulent political time in 2016, may have been expecting a more politically driven plot.

“Critics have a job, which is to see something and run it through their lens and talk about it. So, I can’t argue with it,” he explained. “I do feel like they’re looking at political thematics that they may or may not disagree with that, honestly, are not really reflected or are not front and center in this story.”

The movie has a 27 percent freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with The Chicago Sun-Times’ Richard Roeper, one of the few top critics who gave it a good review, writing in part that it is “a beautifully constructed, unforgiving, heart-tugging family epic.”

Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson writes that the film is “distractingly Hollywoodified, a rich person’s idea of what it is like to be a poor person, a tone-deaf attempt to assuage a very particular kind of liberal guilt.”

And The Washington Post’s Michael O’Sullivan slammed it for taking an apolitical approach:

“[The film] eschews theories — more prominent in the book — that might help explain the opioid epidemic and the seemingly unbreakable cycle of poverty that defies simplistic solutions (yet might cause people to seek deliverance from a political outsider),” he writes. “The problem is that in doing so, the movie leaves us, like [the main character’s] family, with only a mounting pile of baloney excuses for bad behavior.”

Rolling Stone’s David Fear scathingly wrote, “The politically conservative, anti-welfare streak in the author’s writing feels surgically removed; only the turbulence remains, smothered in the syrup … of seasonal treacle. No one would accuse this adaptation of owning the libs or pandering to a base. It’s merely poverty-class cosplay, a pantomime of what people derisively call “white trash” triumph and tragedy being sold as prestige drama. It’s an attempt to serve Spam on a sterling silver platter.”

The movie was never intended to be a political story. Instead, Howard meant for it to impart a very relatable family struggle he saw in the book.

“What I saw was a family drama that could be very relatable. Yes, culturally specific, and if you’re fascinated by that, I hope you find it interesting,” he said. “If you’re from the region, I hope you find it authentic because certainly that was our aim and that was our effort. But I felt that it was a bridge to understanding that we’re more alike than we are different.”

Vance stated that the story still carries as much cultural relevance as it did when it first came out.

“I think certainly the response to the movie and so many emails and messages that I’ve gotten since the movie’s come out suggests it still resonates,” he explained. “I think a lot of people attach specific political significance, but these problems of family struggle, of addiction and resilience, I really do think are timeless because we still have an addiction problem in this country just like we did in 2016, so I think for a lot of the audience, it does still resonate.”

Close’s performance has emerged as one of the leading contenders in this year’s Oscar race.

“Talking with the real J.D. was crucial. I asked how she sat, how she held her cigarette, what her voice was like, what her house looked like — all of that, plus pictures and video that we got, gave me a sense of who she was,” Close said. “No matter how fierce she could be, they sensed that underneath, she was a damaged person herself, but she had this great energy about her in a non-compromising way.”

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