“Hillbilly Elegy” is a loud, tear-stained tribute to the enduring human spirit

Hillbilly Elegy Glenn Close & Amy Adams in Hillbilly Elegy (Imagine Entertainment)

Ron Howard’s adaptation of J.D. Vance’s bootstrapping rags to riches memoir is exactly what you’d expect.

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The news that Ron Howard had optioned J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy for film rights was met largely with a collective groan. It wasn’t just the inevitability of it, but, thanks to the 2016 Presidential election, we were saturated with stories about “real America,” populated by blue collar workers who found themselves adrift and perceived to be forgotten after local industries closed down or moved away. Portraying them as both victims and virulent racists all too eager to buy into conspiracy theories about child eating celebrities, the incessant profiles and “inside looks” did little more than sow a sense of “us vs. them” distrust that’s only gotten more volatile over time. It didn’t help that the book played a little fast and loose with the facts, such as Vance claiming he was the first student in his high school to be accepted to an Ivy League college, when in fact there had been several before him. Vance’s writing itself was marinated in a robust broth of smugness, based largely on the idea that more people could escape their miserable backgrounds, if only they were willing to apply themselves, like he did.

Hillbilly Elegy focuses primarily on Vance’s life as an adolescent (played by Owen Asztalos) and an up-and-coming law school student (Gabriel Basso). Thanks to his admission to Yale, J.D. looks like he might be able to break the cycle of poverty, teenage pregnancy, violence and drug abuse that’s kept his family trapped between working class Ohio and Kentucky hill country. On the eve of an interview that could change his life, however, J.D. is called home for an emergency — his wayward mother, Bev (Amy Adams), is in the hospital after overdosing on heroin. While trying to help Bev find temporary housing, J.D spends a lot of time looking back on his life with her, which mostly consisted of a lot of screaming and being shuffled from one boyfriend’s house to the next, and his Mamaw (Glenn Close), a feisty old bat who tries to keep J.D. on the straight and narrow, and who says things like “I wouldn’t spit on her ass if her guts were on fire.”

Although obviously he does, otherwise there’d have been no reason for the book or movie to exist, the drama in Hillbilly Elegy is found in whether or not J.D. will recognize the destructive patterns his family repeatedly gives into and avoid them himself before it’s too late. He flirts a few times with the idea of becoming a screw-up, then always manages to pull back at the last minute. The movie telegraphs heavily and early on that J.D. is different, sensitive, a dreamer, the kind of 12 year-old who’s more interested in politics than watching Terminator 2. Of course he’ll be the one who makes it, who succeeds in a fancy school, who doesn’t end up growing an unfortunate beard and wearing Goodwill jorts. As much as the plot is dedicated to Bev’s frequent, violent meltdowns, it’s supposed to be uplifting and inspiring, but feels flat, mostly because Hollywood loves these kinds of stories, and tells them often. There’s nothing new or different about it.

As much as the plot is dedicated to Bev’s frequent, violent meltdowns, it’s supposed to be uplifting and inspiring, but feels flat, mostly because Hollywood loves these kinds of stories, and tells them often.

I should have related, to an extent, to Vance’s story. I too grew up in challenging circumstances, albeit a blue collar part of New Jersey instead of Ohio. I also had a drug addicted mother whose mercurial, alternately abusive/needy/loving personality would prove impossible to live with (plus a bonus alcoholic father, though he managed to get it under control when I was still a kid). I had a feisty grandma who looked after me when my parents couldn’t, and another grandmother who, like Mamaw, smoked like it was about to be made illegal. I “got out” of my small town, and now live in New York, although my escape wasn’t through getting into an Ivy League college — I went to an unremarkable state college, and didn’t graduate. I just sort of ended up here, and I would never try to convince anyone that it was easy or achievable for anyone with the right amount of mental gumption. 

Perhaps that’s what bugs me about Hillbilly Elegy (other than Amy Adams’ “white trash” frizzy hair and shrieking histrionics): it portrays J.D.’s journey from hardscrabble teen to success at Yale as a sort of Point A to Point B, and we see almost nothing that came between. It dodges the reality that his getting accepted to Yale would not have required just intelligence and determination, but luck. I didn’t finish college not because I couldn’t hack it, but because I couldn’t afford it, a very real issue for far too many young people in America. J.D. briefly worries about how he’s going to pay for another semester of college, but by the end of the movie that looks like it’s going to be all cleared up. Of course it is: again, otherwise there’d be no reason for this book or movie to exist.

The obvious Da Vinci Code series and How the Grinch Stole Christmas aside, Ron Howard’s movies land more often than they don’t. Night Shift is an underrated comedy classic. Parenthood, despite its white, mostly upper class characters, movingly addressed the universal issues of fear, insecurity and resentment when raising children. Apollo 13, Cinderella Man, Frost/Nixon, they’re all decent to genuinely good. I’ll even stump for Solo being perfectly fine. Howard’s strength is his weakness: he’s a journeyman director, with no real personal style of flair. He just picks whatever project looks interesting to him at the time, and Hollywood lets him, because (a) his movies are uncomplicated (and uncontroversial), and (b) they often make a lot of money.

After a few years of doing Spielberg pastiche, Howard evidently decided it was time to return to Oscar bait, and Hillbilly Elegy is the textbook definition of “Oscar bait.” We may not love poor people themselves, but we love movies about poor people triumphing in the face of adversity. If nothing else, it allows us to point at someone like J.D. Vance and say “See, they could be like him if they tried harder, isn’t that wonderful?” It’s a movie made for and by people who’ve never met a poor person, let alone grew up poor, where everyone has bad hair but perfectly straight, white teeth, and the most frightening thing J.D. encounters is having to figure out which fork to use at a fancy law school dinner. His scrambling around to pay for things on multiple credit cards is treated like a bellwether of disaster, when actually it’s pretty common for people his age, regardless of financial background.

On the upside, Hillbilly Elegy is competently made, and those actors who aren’t explicitly trying to be remembered at awards season are quite good, particularly Haley Bennett as Lindsay, J.D.’s older sister, who stays behind in Ohio while he goes off to follow his dreams. I just don’t know why anyone who experienced what J.D. went through would watch it as anything other than emotional masochism, or why anyone who didn’t other than as an “how the other half lives” sideshow. It means to leave the audience wiping away tears of inspiration, and all we can do is shrug. Been there, done that, not everyone gets a book deal from it.

Hillbilly Elegy is now available on Netflix

Hillbilly Elegy Trailer:

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