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Back in the relatively halcyon days of 2016, as shudders of discontent rumbled through the body politic, 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 wobbly sociological treatise 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 thus became a kind of literary decoder ring, a self-appointed window into the hearts and minds of poor and working-class white Americans, many of whom would play a significant role in handing Donald Trump the presidency.
At the time, the memoir was widely hailed across the political spectrum, particularly among liberals who embraced this painfully insightful dispatch from the other side. Conservatives, for their part, largely relished Vance’s up-by-the-bootstraps narrative — he ultimately joined the Marines, served in Iraq and graduated from Yale Law School — and his subtle castigation of the poor and the government programs designed to help them. But in recent years, “Hillbilly Elegy” has undergone its share of critical reassessments, most of them unflattering. More than a few have questioned the authenticity of Vance’s perspective on Appalachia, his convenient downplaying of race and racism as cultural forces, and his willingness to extrapolate rather too broadly from his family’s own fraught dynamics.
And now, with the nation reeling from another brutally divisive election and the unusually grotesque death throes of the Trump administration, we have before us a Netflix film adaptation of “Hillbilly Elegy.” The timing is interesting, to say the least: Movies seeking cultural cachet and industry hardware are not exactly rare at this time of year, but few of them are so calculated to exploit the political turmoil of the moment. Will this picture seek to nudge us in the direction of feel-good bipartisan healing — a goal that seems elusive at best and specious at worst? Or will it serve only to further deepen battle lines and inflame the usual red-state-blue-state polarities?
The answer, I note with little surprise and some mild relief, is neither. Directed by Ron Howard and denuded of any meaningful politics to speak of, “Hillbilly Elegy” is an extended Oscar-clip montage in search of a larger purpose, an unwieldy slop bucket of door-smashing, child-slapping, husband-immolating histrionics. The faintly scolding, moralizing tone of Vance’s prose has largely evaporated, only to be replaced by the hectoring profanities of Amy Adams and Glenn Close, two Hollywood royals who have subjected themselves to one of the industry’s most time-honored traditions: deglamorization in service of a dubious artistic cause.
Particular effort seems to have been expended in the case of Close, who tries hard to disguise her delicate features and patrician bearing with a frowsy gray wig, a thick smear of makeup and T-shirts so big and baggy she could be operating a wind machine underneath. As Mamaw, the family’s indomitable matriarch, Close gets to sniffle, weep, curse, flip the bird and spout tough-love bromides. One of the stranger ones arrives with her umpteenth viewing of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” during which she announces to J.D. that every person in the world is a “good Terminator, a bad Terminator or neutral.”
J.D.’s mother, Beverly, is surely one of the last, assuming neutrality is the sum of two opposite extremes: As played by Adams, she's a proudly beaming mama one minute and a raging, flailing Gorgon the next. We first meet Bev and much of their extended family in eastern Kentucky, a hill country of rolling slopes and sun-dappled swimming holes that their Scots-Irish American ancestors have long called home. But Bev and her teenage kids, J.D. and Lindsay (a quietly piercing Haley Bennett), are just visiting. Their home is in Middletown, Ohio, just down the street from Bev’s parents, Mamaw and Papaw (Bo Hopkins, underused). 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 diagrammatic one. Vanessa Taylor’s script toggles mechanically between two parallel timelines, bound by motifs of addiction, abuse and grinding, inescapable poverty. In 2011, J.D. (played by 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 camerawork, hurtling past the chaos and clutter of Molly Hughes’ production design, 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 police 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 other words, in generational cycles of dysfunction, deprivation 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 — among them “welfare queens” who have cellphones but no jobs, and who have responded to their adverse circumstances by cultivating a “learned helplessness” — are not reiterated here, which isn’t too surprising. Even in his better films, Howard, a political liberal but an aesthetic conservative, has never been one to rock the boat or advance a provocative point of view.
Which is not to say there are no real-world ideas or insights to be gleaned here, only that they’re mostly glancing, incidental ones. 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, sans adequate food or health insurance. Meanwhile, the young J.D. likes watching the Clinton-Gore 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, mischief-making friends who threaten to drag him down.
It pays off, clearly. 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 crisis of identity yields some blunt fish-out-of-water moments, as he tries to figure out which fork to use at a fancy dinner and blanches at someone’s 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 the outsider’s perspective that governs this would-be-insider’s movie.
It also couldn’t help but remind me of an incalculably 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 “Junebug” (2005) was our first major introduction to Amy Adams, whose performance in that film still ranks among her finest work; it’s the kind of soulful, deeply original acting that deepens our sense of the richness and singularity of human experience. Her turn in “Hillbilly Elegy,” though not without its raw, affecting moments, 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.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.