Hillbilly Elegy (Howard, 2020)

In a video discussion provided to critics with the advanced screener of Hillbilly Elegy, director Ron Howard admitted to having trouble finding the through story in J. D. Vance’s popular memoir. Howard added that he was somewhat skittish about the book’s sociopolitical angle but wanted to film it because the people in it acted like his own extended family.

That stance is certainly understandable, but it’s unfortunate because it moves away from the primary reason most people were interested in the memoir in the first place. As domestic melodrama, Hillbilly Elegy is a somewhat conventional tale of the effects of drug addiction with a side of Horatio Algereseque rising from poverty. The book garnered attention because its appearance in 2016 purported to offer insights into the culture of economically disadvantaged white voters who propelled Donald Trump to the presidency. The film version’s focus, then, would be something like retelling United 93 as a family profile of the passengers without any reference to them getting on the airplane.

One of the first scenes in Hillbilly Elegy features a young J.D. finding an injured turtle on the road. He picks it up and, rather than helping it, moves it to a different location. This is, of course, the worst thing you can do for a turtle. I thought for a second that perhaps this was meant to be a metaphor for the book as a whole: James (or Hillbillies) are the turtle and well-meaning but ignorant people who intercede do more harm than good. If it was a metaphor, the film seemed unaware of it, even having the young J.D. spew some facts about turtle anatomy to demonstrate that he knows more than the average poor kid. Maybe he does, but a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

And knowledge isn’t wisdom.

The film’s narrative is told with parallel storylines. The adult J.D. is on the brink of escaping poverty but hasn’t landed the first important law-school job yet. He’s called back home to help his mom (Amy Adams) who has relapsed into addiction. The flashbacks tell of how J.D. grew up in the shadow of that addiction and, with the intercession of his grandmother (Glenn Close), escaped it financially if not emotionally.

I give the film marginal props for having the courage to make the young J.D. a … less than angelic kid. He says he wants to live with grandma to get away from mom and then blames grandma for butting in and taking him away from mom. For anyone who has any sort of experience with child protective services, this makes sense. J.D. waffles between a survival instinct and survivor’s guilt. The problem, though, is that we understand this internal tension far, far quicker than the film expects us to, so it keeps underlining the same motivations and points long after we’ve grown impatient with the storytelling.

The best scene in Hillbilly Elegy — the only one that worked for me — is when the young J.D. complains that he can’t do his math homework without an $84 calculator. After grandma buys it for him, he throws it out the car window during an argument driving home. Grandma kicks him out of the car and tells him he can’t come home without it. He thinks this is tough love of some sort, but later he oversees the proud family matriarch literally begging Meals on Wheels for whatever extra food they can give. After that, he starts behaving, doing chores, working on his homework.

It is not a particularly subtle scene, but in a movie this on-the-nose, it’s the closest thing we get to showing rather than telling. Amy Adams is fine, and so is Glenn Close. They manage to avoid making their characters stereotypes even though a title like Hillbilly Elegy practically announces that stereotype is the point. The title has that sort of aggressive embrace of the moniker while the story expresses ambivalence. At best, Vance’s attitude toward his culture of youth (as presented in the film since I haven’t read the book) can be described as love-hate. More accurately, it’s probably tolerate-hate. Or feel-compassionate-towards-but-still-hate.

That’s great for a sermon illustration on the virtues of perseverance. For a drama with Oscar aspirations, it’s too earnest and completely safe. I think the film is so worried about us not having an uplifting cinematic experience that it never risks presenting the ugliest parts of Vance’s culture as unmitigatedly ugly. Drug addiction is never presented as an escape from a painful reality, it is just something that happens to every family, almost at random. Honestly, I’ve seen more penetrating social analysis in a handful of Jack Reacher novels.

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