The attacks on director Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy from our country’s provincial and intolerant elites make little sense and only expose their own bigotries and close minds. The problem with the movie is not its politics — it’s hardly political, nor is there anything untoward about a sympathetic portrayal of America’s white working class. My problem with Hillbilly Elegy is solely a storytelling one.
The film, of course, is based on J.D. Vance’s 2016 bestseller, his memoir of growing up in Ohio and essentially raised by his grandparents, who instilled in him their hillbilly values, having come from the Appalachia region of Kentucky. (I live in the Appalachia region of the North Carolina mountains and it’s awesome.)
While I’m not normally a memoir guy, I read Hillbilly Elegy earlier this year and was impressed, not only with how compelling the story was but that there was no sneering in Vance’s look back, despite the fact he ended up at Yale.
At first the book was greeted by our hideous elite-erati with hosannas. Here at last is someone who can explain to us why Trump won. They loved Vance in 2016. Today, not so much. Probably for a couple of reasons. To begin with, Vance wouldn’t sell out. I’m sure the temptations put in front of him were Scarborough-ish: Trash Trump and we’ll make you a star! Give you your own show! Massive contracts! You’ll be one of us!
But the guy refuses to turn. He’s still a conservative/libertarian-minded Ohio boy wary of central planning and big government. Secondly, over the past four years America’s elites went from wanting to understand us to wanting to exterminate us.
By the time I read Hillbilly Elegy, the movie was already in production, and I remember thinking then, How do you turn this into a movie, into a three-act narrative? The appeal of Vance’s book, at least to me, is not the events that occur. Other than his Mamaw (grandmother) lighting his Papaw (grandfather) on fire early in their troubled marriage (when Vance’s mother was still a child), nothing that happens is terribly original or anything a whole lot of us haven’t experienced.
The appeal of the book is what Vance has to say about these things, and most especially his willingness to look back with love, respect, and a political point-of-view that’s mostly unacceptable to the American left. In that way it’s deliciously subversive.
The problem with Howard’s adaptation, which was just released on Netflix, is its structure. The first 75 minutes feel like the longest first act in movie history. You keep asking yourself when the story is going to kick in as you watch one repetitive scene after another involving Vance’s drug addicted mother (Amy Adams) as she has one breakdown after another.
Nothing against Adams, she does what she can, but how many breakdowns do we need to see before we get the point? I would say one. Two tops. When is someone going to wake up and change the dynamic here? you keep asking yourself.
The story spins in place for an interminable hour-plus until finally — finally! — Glenn Close’s Mamaw — as if to say It’s time to get this movie started! — lifts herself out of a hospital bed and pulls Young J.D. (Owen Asztalos) out of his dysfunctional home, takes him in, and practices some tough love.
Mamaw saves the boy, sees the potential in him, and although she’s old and infirm and poor as dirt, she kicks his ass until he gets it in gear. That should have been the movie. That’s when the movie finally comes alive. By then, though, it’s just too late. If I hadn’t been watching Hillbilly Elegy to review it, I would have shut it off before it got good.
And this is probably what is so angering our bitter elites, the fact grandma saves the boy, as opposed to Big Gubmint or the commune of community. Young J.D. is not on the verge of repeating generational mistakes because capitalism is evil or America is bad or the government doesn’t do enough. What’s dragging him down are bad choices.
What improves his life are good choices. Leftists hate that message because 1) it’s true, 2) it says anyone can succeed in America (which is also true), 3) it lays bare the lie of social engineering, and 4) it creates a culture of rugged independence which is anathema to those who want to organize society around big government. These critics can all kiss my ass.
Something else that disappointed was wasting Bo Hopkins, one of the most underrated actors of the last 50 years (he costarred with Howard in American Graffiti). He’s given almost nothing to do, given no scenes or even a moment where we can feel something for his character, so when he (spoiler alert) passes away very early on, we feel nothing for him or for the loss his loved ones feel, which makes it melodrama.
In the book, Papaw’s death is a very affecting moment because we’ve had the chance to get to know him and have a full understanding of his and Young J.D’.s relationship, and most especially his and Mamaw’s complicated (to say the least) marriage.
It’s also confusing. Because young J.D. spends so much time at Mamaw’s house, I thought he was already living with her when she asked him to come live with her.
The overall problem is that except for the hour-too-late scenes involving Mamaw, none of the relationships evolve or devolve or change in any way. This is the primary reason it’s so repetitive and melodramatic.
The story jumps around a lot between Young J.D. and College-Age J.D., and I cared nothing about College-Age J.D., because, again, the relationships all stood frozen.
Another bad choice is what the movie is about, which is College Age J.D. realizing his family, most especially his mother and the overall culture, are all dragging him down, are keeping him from important interviews with prestigious law firms. Are we really supposed to care if some guy from Yale misses or is an hour late for a job interview? Those are some pretty low stakes. Ultimately, it also comes off as selfish, especially the final scene between College Age J.D. and his mother.
I wouldn’t abandon a stranger, my own worst enemy in that condition, much less my own mother, and yet the movie tells us this a triumph.
What’s so disturbing about this choice is that in the memoir this moment is not about abandoning his mother, it’s about the exact opposite, about how his marriage and growing Christian faith have told J.D. it’s time to put away the grudges and wounds, time to stop hiding from his mother and to try and help her while balancing the needs of his own life — the one he’s built for himself. It’s a lovely moment, primarily because Vance seems determined to downplay what is a big emotional turning point for him, the moment when he finally grows all the way up.
I’m not sure it’s fair to blame Vanessa Taylor, the screenwriter. There’s no way of knowing, but I got the feeling there was a lot of desperate, post-production restructuring going on in the editing room.
You got to give it to Glenn Close, though, once she’s given the opportunity to be more than the Greek chorus, once she’s allowed to dig into that character, she’s just superb. Another standout performance comes from Haley Bennett as J.D.’s grown sister. Unlike Close and Adams, her character doesn’t have any big Oscar-moments, she’s just quiet and very, very real.
Is Hillbilly Elegy worth two hours of your life over Thanksgiving weekend?
Read the book instead. The book is definitely worth your time.