Hillbilly Elegy is a movie that’s best consumed in pieces, via YouTube highlights or awards reels. There’s just no making sense of it as a whole. The film is like a package of assorted chicken parts that can’t be assembled back into something approximating the shape of an actual animal — there’s way too much of some stuff, while certain essentials are missing entirely. There are ample scenes in which one of the cast members, more often than not Amy Adams, ramps up into a shriek, yet the film itself does so little to build toward a point that when it ends, it’s with a feeling of mild surprise: I guess here is as good a place to stop as any. There’s a moment in which Glenn Close, made almost unrecognizable as the frizzy family matriarch, Mamaw, peels off medical sensors and stomps out of a hospital à la an action movie tough guy, which mostly emphasizes how poorly detailed her health problems were to begin with. There’s a sequence in which law student J.D. Vance (played, as an adult, by Gabriel Basso) confronts a would-be employer over a dinner at Yale about the man’s snide use of the term “redneck,” and the movie clenches up with unease about whether it’s been functionally doing the same thing.
The makers of Hillbilly Elegy are clearly aware of how easy it would be for its characters to slide into travesty, but have no idea how to make them feel like three-dimensional humans either. It settles for rendering them in fragments, bursts of memory from the perspective of a narrator recounting his story for uncertain ends. It’s a bad movie, but not one that takes a big enough swing to be interesting in its failures. There was this strange thing that happened when the trailer premiered online, where people declared it absurd and, in the same breath, said it was sure to win an Oscar. That says something not entirely true about the state of awards, or at least not always anymore, but it also perfectly sums up the kind of movie Hillbilly Elegy is. It embodies prestige as a genre that has nothing to do with quality or thematic importance. It’s based on real events. It has A-list actors doing work that is not good, but that is big, and also part of a tradition of cultural tourism that tends to get treated as interchangeable with the transformative. It has, in Ron Howard, a sturdy director who’s been responsible for prize-winning films in the past, though how well those films work is heavily dependent on his material. He’s in no danger of rising about the script for Hillbilly Elegy, which was adapted by Vanessa Taylor from Vance’s 2016 best seller of the same name.
Howard’s production company purchased the rights for Vance’s book in April 2017, around the peak period in which it was regarded by a particular bipartisan swath of the country as a manual for explaining the rise of Donald Trump. The film, coming out in late 2020, feels marked by mild embarrassment about buying into that narrative. Vance’s book, which describes his turbulent childhood in Middletown, Ohio, his stint in the Marines, and his acceptance to Yale Law School, is subtitled “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” but little of the “culture” aspect that made it such a phenom actually shows up on screen. Howard and Taylor steer clear of Vance’s broader claims about the community from which he came — his diagnosis of working class white disaffection as born out of defeatism, self-sabotage, and “learned helplessness,” and his desire to hold up his family, his own success, and his generalizations about the Appalachia from which they came as evidence that race has little to do with endemic poverty. It’s an understandable omission, but what’s left is a formless film that jumps between J.D.’s youth, when he’s played by Owen Asztalos, and his time as a law student who’s trying to secure a summer job at a firm when he’s summoned home by his sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett), who calls to tell him their mother Bev (Adams) is in the hospital after having overdosed on heroin again.
The screen version of Hillbilly Elegy is, thank god, not bent on making a case for how poverty is the fault of the poor. But it’s also not about anything else either, really — without Vance’s contentions, it’s just the story of a guy who grew up in an unstable but, by his own characterization, unexceptional home, and went on to get a degree from an Ivy League school and work for Peter Thiel. J.D., in both his younger and older incarnations, is a contourless protagonist who offers little to latch onto, shuttled between the pair of women who care for him, then into the patient support of his classmate and girlfriend Usha (Freida Pinto). As the older of those two family members, Close gurns and shuffles, but can’t come close to the no-fucks-left-to-give zest the character calls for. And as the younger, Adams has been given an ironic hell punishment for actorly ambition — consisting of so many outsized scenes and no center. Bev struggles with substance abuse and cycles through lovers and husbands. She has what appear to be undiagnosed mental health issues, but they’re never acknowledged as such. She’s seen only through her son’s point of view, as this erratic banshee cycling between talking resentfully of her lost potential as a former high school salutatorian and threatening to crash her car with the two of them in it.
There’s an anguished, underdeveloped thread running through Hillbilly Elegy about what it’s like to love someone and to need to leave them behind for your own self-preservation — but to really tell that story, the film would have to actually see these characters as people, not as selective evidence shoring up an argument that’s too distasteful for it to make. Instead, Hillbilly Elegy is just a collection of elements that it hopes will come together to form something meaningful but which, in the end, add up to nothing at all.
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