If Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy were a free-floating sphere of a movie—and not based on a now somewhat infamous memoir—you might be able to cut it some slack. The film, adapted from J.D. Vance’s 2016 book, details one man’s bumpy road from headed-for-trouble rust belt Ohio kid to promising Yale law student; he achieved this goal partly because he made the wrenching decision to separate himself from his mentally imbalanced, drug-addicted mother and succumb to the care of his Kentucky-born, tough-love-dispensing maternal grandmother, whom he called Mamaw. By now, you’ve probably seen the clips of Glenn Close bringing Mamaw to life in the movie, sporting owlish glasses and a frizzle of gray curls, her mouth a grim straight line when not issuing cornpone wisdom. You have also likely seen footage of Amy Adams, as J.D.’s mother, Bev, perpetually on the verge of ugly-crying and also sporting wiry, unkempt locks. Nothing says simple people of the earth like bad hair.
Yet Hillbilly Elegy isn’t as terrible as those clips suggest, even as it falls far short of anything you could call good. Howard is a radically earnest filmmaker; he cares for, and believes in, these characters to a degree that’s almost painful to watch. He doesn’t see how exaggerated he’s allowed them to be. He has also framed Hillbilly Elegy as a purely personal, rather than overtly political, story—but no movie emerges from a vacuum. It goes without saying that Vance’s book and Howard’s movie are two distinct if entwined entities. It also goes without saying that it’s almost impossible for anyone to think of them that way.
Vance’s book was published in June 2016, but by the following November, it had become a kind of reverse oracle, devoured by readers who simply could not understand why so many people in rural America—defined, roughly, as middle- or lower-middle-class white people who don’t live in cities—would be motivated to vote for a blustering, politically inexperienced reality-TV star. In promoting the book and in the years since its publication, Vance, who works as a venture capitalist, has espoused slippery political views that tend toward the conservative, and despite his love for his complicated family—made clear in his memoir—his focus on self-empowerment can all too easily be read, or misread, as a version of “Poor people just need to stop being lazy and get it together.”
Yet watching Hillbilly Elegy—and seeing a devoted, well-meaning director like Howard misstep—introduces even more complications. Howard won a directing Oscar for the math-genius biopic A Beautiful Mind (2001), though I tend to prefer less lofty endeavors like the Formula One rivalry saga Rush (2013), not to mention the delightful mermaid comedy Splash (1984). Howard cares about how movies are shot and constructed, and he cares about acting—but sometimes caring isn’t enough. He has cast a sympathetic young actor, Gabriel Basso (who played one of the kid filmmakers in J.J. Abrams’ 2011 Super 8), as the adult J.D.: In one of the movie’s most effective scenes, law student J.D., desperate to nab a summer internship at a good firm—and feeling insecure next to his solid Ivy League-type classmates—sits uncomfortably at a table full of bigwig lawyers as they quiz him on his background. In his tidy suit, with his neatly combed hair, he could easily pass for an upper-class kid. Then the snooty gents at the table learn that he was raised in small-town Ohio, with roots in Kentucky hill country, and one of them makes an unvarnished crack about “rednecks.” J.D. bristles: “We don’t really use that term.” The moment crystallizes one sure thing about the movie and, more indirectly, about Vance’s feelings about where he came from: condescension to rural Americans—and certainly those from Appalachia—is real, and insidious.
But elsewhere in Hillbilly Elegy, Howard comes close to unintentional condescension himself in the way he guides, or fails to guide, his actors. Bev and Mamaw are big personalities: Bev loves her kids (J.D. has a protective older sister, played by Haley Bennett) and often struggles to care for them, but she’s also physically and emotionally abusive. In one horrifying sequence, she comes close to committing a murder-suicide by intentionally hitting the gas pedal and swerving recklessly, with young J.D. in the passenger seat. (As a youth, he’s played by Owen Asztalos.) Mamaw, too, is larger than life, though in far less dangerous ways. When J.D. blasts her take-no-prisoners child-rearing approach, she shoots back with a blast of classic granny pepper spray: “I don’t care if you hate me, I ain’t in it for popularity.”
The line is hilarious, and Close knows it. And her performance is completely lacking in vanity. Yet she can’t survive that hair, those glasses, or Mamaw’s wardrobe of oversize T-shirts with soft-focus kittens printed on them—no actor could. Similarly, Adams comes off as a heavily diagrammed notion of a drug-addicted, financially struggling mom. There’s no subtlety behind her mania; you see her suffering writ large in big, snotty tears, but you don’t feel it. Both she and Mamaw come off as cartoons, and it’s uncertain exactly where to put the blame. Actors aren’t the sole architects of even their greatest performances; there’s always someone looking at them through the viewfinder, or examining the granular qualities of their craft in the editing room. Both of these performances are as outsized and as ill-fitting as Mamaw’s T-shirts, and it’s unfortunate that Howard didn’t reel them in, at least a little. Adams and Close end up affirming, rather than refuting, the prejudices of that fancy-pants law-firm guy. They also cut against Vance’s intent—which is clear, no matter how you may feel about his book—to paint these members of his family as complicated, flawed people. Hillbilly Elegy isn’t as terrible as the trailers make it look, but as an enterprise it’s just all-around sad, a movie that courts sympathy for its characters yet ends up only as a requiem for itself.
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