Sorry, early interview… I don’t have soundbites down yet,” apologizes Ron Howard, as he freestyles an involved answer about his new movie Hillbilly Elegy. It’s understandable. This adaptation of J.D. Vance’s best-selling memoir about his life growing up in Appalachia is not the sort of movie that can be boiled down to bite-size throwaways. A complex family saga about addiction, adversity, and ambition, its arrival during US election month makes it timely to say the least.
When Vance’s book was published four years ago, many took it as a window into the disaffected white working-class who swept Donald Trump to power. “Anyone wanting to understand Trump’s rise or American inequality should read it,” said one commentator. Certainly, the Republican-supporting Vance is the epitome of the American Dream: after a hardscrabble upbringing in Ohio, he was accepted into Yale and, later, a Silicon Valley biotech firm.
Vance was initially “reluctant” to let his family memoir be turned into a movie, says Howard. “He said that several companies had reached out to him. But he wasn’t sure. And I told him I wasn’t sure either.” Still, the 66-year-old director was in need of something that felt personal. “I’d been looking for a story that was contemporary, and dealt with rural, small-town America in a way that I could relate to and yet wasn’t sensationalised, wasn’t a crime story.”
His recent documentary work has taken him into real lives – not least those affected by the Californian wildfires in Rebuilding Paradise – but his A-List diet of blockbusters, like the recent Solo: A Star Wars Story, had taken him away from the more intimate stories of his earlier career. “I haven’t actually had a pure family story in a long time,” he says, citing 2005’s boxing yarn Cinderella Man as the last time he tackled one.
Flashing between his time at Yale and his earlier years, the story shows Vance and sister Lindsay growing up in chaos: an absent father and a mother, Bev, struggling with a heroin problem. Only their grandmother – Mamaw – offers rock-solid support. “I always love hearing stories about people who overcome,” remarks Gabriel Basso, the rising star Howard chose to play the Yale-era Vance. “It’s motivating to read or hear about someone who makes good choices, despite what their environment or upbringing may have been.”
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Basso immediately related to Vance. “I grew up in Missouri, so Ohio seemed very familiar to me. It definitely brought a layer of authenticity to everything.” Like Vance, who enlisted in the Marine Corps and served in Iraq, he’s also had a spell in the military, which accounts for why there’s a five-year gap in his CV between Hillbilly and earlier roles in J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 and the Meg Ryan-directed Ithaca. His army service meant “he was able to really connect with J.D. in that way,” says Howard.
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