Back in the relatively calmer time of 2016, J.D. Vance’s newly published Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis was swiftly seized upon as a major, even prophetic work. A shaky sociological essay by way of a tough, harrowing personal story, it told the story of Vance’s tumultuous Rust Belt upbringing and his family’s deep roots in Appalachia. It soon became a kind of literary decoding device, a self-appointed window into the hearts and minds of working-class White Americans, many of whom would play a significant role in putting Donald Trump into office. At the time of its release, the memoir was widely hailed across the political spectrum, particularly among liberals who embraced it for it’s insight into the other side. Conservatives largely praised Vance’s up-by-the-bootstraps narrative — he ultimately joined the Marines, served in Iraq and graduated from Yale Law School — and for his subtle scolding of the poor and the government programs designed to help them. Yet it’s been in recent years that Vance’s book has undergone its share of critical reassessments, most of them unflattering. Many have questioned the authenticity of Vance’s perspective of Appalachia, his convenient downplaying of race and racism as cultural forces, and his willingness to generalize rather too broadly from his family’s own fraught dynamics.
Now we have before us a Netflix film adaptation of Hillbilly Elegy, which arrives at an interesting time: In a more normal year this is primetime awards season, but currently it’s also a moment of political turmoil. Will this movie nudge us into a feel-good bipartisanship healing or could it only inflame the polarities more? The answer, I note with some surprise and some relief, is neither. Directed by Ron Howard and delivered pretty apolitically, Hillbilly Elegy is a weak-limbed Oscar-clip montage in search of a larger purpose, an unwieldy scrap-can of door-slamming, child-slapping, husband-burning theatrics. The faint scolding tone of Vance’s work is largely lifted, only to be replaced by the bullying profanities of Amy Adams and Glenn Close, two Hollywood royals who have subjected themselves to one of the industry’s most established traditions: deglamorization in service of a dubious artistic cause.
Most of those efforts have seemingly been spent on Close, who’s delicate features are attempted to be hidden under a scruffy gray wig, a thick smear of makeup and some very baggy T-shirts. As Mamaw, the family’s indomitable matriarch, Close gets to sniffle, weep, curse, flip the bird and spout tough-love “lessons(?)” — including a strange one that involves how everyone in the world is either a “good Terminator, a bad Terminator, or neutral.” J.D.’s mother, Beverly (Adams), lands in the latter ground right between two extremes: She’s a proudly beaming mom one minute and a raging, flailing fury the next. We first meet Bev and much of their extended family in the hills of eastern Kentucky, but Bev and her teenage kids, J.D. and Lindsay (Haley Bennett), are just visiting. Their home is in Middletown, Ohio, just down the street from Bev’s parents, Mamaw and Papaw (Bo Hopkins). Their pride in their Appalachian roots is exceeded only by their pride at having escaped them, at having sought opportunities and built homes for themselves in this Ohio steel town.
What happened over the years in those homes is a more painful and complicated story, if also an overly schematic one. Vanessa Taylor’s script toggles mechanically between two parallel timelines, bound by motifs of addiction, abuse, and inescapable poverty. In 2011, an older J.D. (Gabriel Basso), is called home from Yale by the news that Bev is in the hospital following a heroin overdose. As he rushes back to Middletown and tries to check his maddeningly uncooperative mom into rehab, he’s pelted with flashbacks to the late ’90s, specifically those not-infrequent moments when he and Lindsay found themselves on the receiving end of Bev’s explosive temper. That temper doesn’t take much to ignite, and Maryse Alberti’s handheld camerawork seems to take its cues from Bev’s messy, unpredictable moods. Her life is a decades-long accumulation of striving, self-loathing and disappointment: Once her high school’s salutatorian, she got pregnant at a young age (like Mamaw before her) and has since struggled to forge a decent life for herself and the kids. Her efforts yielded a revolving door of boyfriends, a series of temporary homes and a hard-won nursing job that grants her unfortunate access to prescription meds. Her worst rampages, one of which ends with her in handcuffs, send J.D. running into the protective arms of Mamaw — who, as we see in one traumatic flashback, has her own history of domestic violence.
These characters are trapped in generational cycles of dysfunction and hopelessness. Those patterns are also cultural and structural, though unlike its source material, Hillbilly Elegy seems curiously uninterested in the underlying causes, let alone the possible solutions. Vance’s harsher assessments of the people he grew up around are not reiterated here, which isn’t too surprising. Even in his better films, Howard, while politically liberal yet more aesthetically conservative, has never been one to rock the boat or push a provocative point of view. Which is to say that this is a pretty milquetoast movie, one where there isn’t any commentary or really much insight to be gleaned, most of it, if any, is quite incidental. It’s hard to see Bev being discharged from a crowded hospital, or Mamaw dividing a meager plate of food between herself and J.D., and not think of the millions of Americans living below the poverty line, without adequate food or health insurance. Meanwhile, the young J.D. likes watching coverage of the Clinton administration on TV, suggesting his early interest in a larger political and intellectual world beyond Middletown. He will eventually discover that world at Yale, though not until after straightening up, studying hard and casting aside the idle, troublemaking friends who threaten to drag him down.
It does pay off, though. The older J.D. has a lovely, supportive girlfriend (Freida Pinto) and an interview with a prestigious law firm, both of which he stresses about losing as he tries to rescue his mom from her latest relapse. His half-baked crisis of identify yields some shrilly blunt fish-out-of-water moments, as he tries to figure out which fork to use at a fancy dinner and scorns someone for their casual use of the word “rednecks.” And the guilt that he grapples with — the sense of having escaped the dead-end fate that awaits most of his friends and family — is in some ways the most honest and revealing aspect of Hillbilly Elegy, perhaps because it unwittingly echoes actually a more outsider’s perspective of this would-be-insider’s movie. Which kind of makes Hillbilly Elegy feel like some defense for ignoring these downtrodden fellow Americans, expect without having any idea who those people are; dimly disguising the self-serving nature of this story; proving that it’s hardly an elegy since it can hardly reflect/understand the living never mind the past. All these failings couldn’t help but bring to mind a much superior film in which a successful, well-educated young man returns home to the Jesus-loving-blue-collar family he’s grown apart from. The contrast seems noteworthy mainly because that movie, Junebug, was the world’s first major introduction to Amy Adams, whose performance in that film still ranks among her finest work; it’s the kind of soulful, deep-seated performance that deepens our sense of the richness and singularly of the human experience. Her turn in Hillbilly Elegy, somehow manages the opposite. Poverty becomes a performance, and complex emotions are reduced to a display of lung power. Sometimes a movie’s humanity, like its makeup, is barely even skin-deep. Imbedded in vague simplicity and inert caricatures and clichés, Hillbilly Elegy is a film of overwrought histrionics that reaches for empathy but is lost in a devouring insipidness.
Hillbilly Elegy will be released onto Netflix on November 24