First published in the summer of 2016, J.D. Vance’s timely “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis” became a bipartisan bestseller for obvious reasons: It lent conservatives the moral cover that some of them needed to support Trump, and offered “I would have voted for Obama a third time” liberals the performative satisfaction of making a good-faith effort to understand how anyone could. Here was a book that tapped into failings on both sides of the aisle to paint a mutually agreeable picture of the forgotten people in the middle of the country; a Randian self-portrait of a poor Ohio kid with Appalachian blood who pulled himself up by his bootstraps, defied the gravity of the learned helplessness that he saw in the people around him, and fulfilled the American Dream of going to Yale Law before launching a Tolkien-inspired venture capital fund with hall of fame bloodsucker Peter Thiel. God bless these United States.
Yet Vance’s autobiography read like a tortured account of survivor’s guilt from someone desperate to justify his success and make peace his their one-way transition from yokel to yuppy. Vance wrote about the rot in his family tree — as well as the oxygen it gave him — with vivid clarity, but it was the “Culture in Crisis” part of his book’s subtitle that sparked a forest fire in the hot take industrial complex, as his victim- blaming generalizations about the social mobility of working-class Americans so minimized the need for governmental support that it felt like he was pulling up the ladder behind him.
In that light, the most generous reading of Ron Howard’s anodyne and somehow apolitical Netflix adaptation is that it’s trying to sand the edges off this story and do Vance the favor of making him seem like a good example. Howard is a world-famous mensch, and the very existence of his latest film is nothing short of an Oscar-worthy mitzvah.
Written for the screen by “The Shape of Water” scribe Vanessa Taylor, “Hillbilly Elegy” is — for better or worse — exactly the kind of milquetoast and capital-“E” Empathetic movie you would expect a bunch of Hollywood liberals to make from Vance’s memoir. The source material has been stripped of its libertarian streak (in addition to any other social commentary) and sandblasted into something that more closely resembles a shouty episode of “This Is Us” in both structure and tone than it does a pre-history of the Trump era or a caricature of those who capitalized on it.
Amy Adams does a whole lot of acting as Vance’s tempestuous mother, Glenn Close gets to wear a Brillo pad wig and cosplay as a flame-throwing granny who says things like “I wouldn’t spit on her ass if her guts were on fire,” and the whole thing ends with some canned voiceover about how “Where we come from is who we are, but we choose every day who we become.” It’s that kind of movie. It will stir no controversy, enflame the minimum number of thinkpieces demanded by the moment (most of which will focus on the value of such a blandly “purple” movie at the height of our red/blue divide), and earn a party favor’s worth of awards for its cast. Some will feel seen, others will feel excused from looking closer, and most will feel nothing.
Cutting between J.D.’s teenage years in Middletown, Ohio and the fateful night more than a decade later when he gets summoned home from New Haven on the eve of a life-altering job interview, Taylor’s script is structured like a vortex that sucks the present back into the past and creates a centrifugal force that holds the movie together on top of its hollow core. Owen Asztalos plays young J.D. as an open-mouthed observer who’s basically spent his entire life rubbernecking at his own family; his story begins 1997, when his photogenic clan (including an underwritten sister played by the always believable Haley Bennet) relocates to the Rust Belt and the kid starts to realize that his circumstances are a product of the hope that his grandparents lost somewhere along Route 23.
J.D.’s mom Bev is a drug-addicted nurse who pinballs between men and slips opioids into her pocket at work — she does everything to the fullest extent a human being can, whether that’s sticking up for her kids or beating the hell out of her “fatass” son when he complains about her romantic instability. J.D. naturally grows closer to his Mamaw, even though he blames her for the way his mom turned out (the truth, it turns out, is a bit more complicated than a kid can hope to see through the eye of a storm).
Some 14 years later, an older J.D. (played by Gabriel Basso, whose sympathetic but blank performance fills a linebacker’s body with a deer-in-the-headlights affectation) is trying to fit in with the old money types at Yale, and he’s doing such a clumsy job of it that his initials might as well stand for Jack Dawson. The dinner scene in which his girlfriend (Freida Pinto) talks him through the finer points of salad forks is so broad that it makes “Titanic” feel like a Straub-Huillet film by comparison.
Hours before the interview that could permanently cement his place in high society, J.D. gets the phone call that will force him to untangle his self-identity and figure out how far he ever really got from home: His mom has OD-ed on heroin, and he decides to drive back to Ohio even if heeding the tug of his past means risking the promise of his future. J.D. may not have a GPS, but if he just follows the shouting he should be able to find his way back to Middletown soon enough.
There are a handful of reasons why “Hillbilly Elegy” is more affecting in the less recent of its parallel timelines. For one thing, J.D. is a more understandable character as a younger man. His misinformed resentments and inherited self-defeat are humane and well-realized in a way that reinforces Howard’s natural intuition for scaling emotions to the right size — a gift that has never been more of an asset than it is here, as even Adams’ hammiest moments feel like part of a balanced meal because of Asztalos isn’t afraid to make J.D. seem overwhelmed by them.
For another thing, these scenes have the benefit of Glenn Close, who resists caricature at every turn and temptation while anchoring a movie that’s constantly on the precipice of the parody it never becomes. The Oscar-starved narrative the actress has been forced to carry since her losing campaign for “The Wife” isn’t helped by a part that’s one fake nose away from “Tropic Thunder” territory, but Close loves to disappear before our eyes, and her Mamaw is real despite everything as a woman whose entire life could be described as “despite everything.”
While Adams is tasked to slingshot and spiral, Close is challenged with holding down the fort and paving over the most egregious of this film’s many elisions. Whether she’s talking about the dignity of hill people or waxing poetic about how “everyone in this life is either a good Terminator, a bad Terminator, or neutral,” Mamaw cuts through the bullshit in a way that rings true to the rowdiness and resilience of Vance’s world. A shot of Close holding one of J.D.’s algebra chests to her heart like a love letter from the future is powerful enough to cut through all the hokum around it.
“Hillbilly Elegy” hinges on Mamaw’s hope that she’ll leave her family better off than she found them, and it’s clear that Vance’s story has fulfilled that wish almost as soon as this movie starts. But the process of watching him cut his losses and recommit to his own success is rendered in a way that it isn’t just dramatically unsatisfying in the extreme, but also on the verge of sociopathic. For all of the favors that Howard does to the subject of his biopic, the director can only do so much to disguise the self-serving nature of a story that was always less about where Vance came from than it was about where he wanted to go.
“Hillbilly Elegy” will be released into select theaters on Wednesday, November 11. It will be available to stream on Netflix on Tuesday, November 24.
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