I’m not here to judge the best-selling memoir of J.D. Vance or his conservative politics the way others seem to do in their reviews of the film adaptation of Hillbilly Elegy (directed by Ron Howard, with a screenplay by Vanessa Taylor). The primary reason for my approach is simply that the book and the film are two different animals, in that Vance infused his politics into his life story and turned his humble and sometimes tragic upbringing into the thing that shaped rather than defeated him. The known liberal leanings of Howard have, in turn, influenced what he emphasizes in his telling of Vance’s story: he sees Vance’s life as an example of overcoming aversion and triumphing in the face of poverty, addiction and a weakened sense of self worth. (Conservative Vance does seem to resent the way the Republican Party has co-opted the noble myth of the poor working-class whites as a way to forgive itself for erasing the American middle-class and ignoring all other non-white working-class citizens.)
All of that being said, Hillbilly Elegy is something of a confused (not confusing) mess, featuring a handful of genuinely solid performances trapped in a story that feels like it pulls its punches at every turn, both in terms of where it could explore new territory and how it chooses to be emotionally impactful. The film jumps around in time a bit, but is told to us primarily in flashback from Vance (played as an adult by Gabriel Basso) when he’s at Yale Law, on the verge of getting his dream law firm job. He gets a call from his older sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett) that their mother Bev (Amy Adams) is in the hospital after nearly dying from a heroin overdose. The incident triggers all manner of memories in Vance, most of which involve times in his life when Bev hurt him or otherwise screwed up his life in ways that therapy can barely touch. Within seconds of getting the news, Vance almost ruins his chance at landing an interview for said dream job, thus adding to the list of things his mother messed up for him.
Without even telling his girlfriend Usha (Freida Pinto), he jumps in his car and heads to his hometown in southern Ohio. On the drive, we sample the memories that cycle through his head like a nightmare family scrapbook. There’s no point in ruining the surprise of the content of these recollections—they’re all fairly predictable, but involve such chestnuts as drugs, a parade of men that her mother used for a place to live and help take care of her children, and Vance’s grandmother Mamaw (Glenn Close), who ended up raising him for a significant portion of his life and likely saved him from a life of delinquency and other bad choices.
At its core, Hillbilly Elegy is about a cycle of terrible upbringings that leads to bad parenting. Mamaw was abused her entire childhood and got pregnant with Bev at 13; her husband (an almost hidden turn by Bo Hopkins) was an abusive drunk and now the two live in separate homes down the road from each other (as far as I could tell, they were still married). Bev’s raising was only slightly better, although Mamaw could be rough on her as well. Although Bev managed to get her nursing license, she too got pregnant young and struggled to raise two kids as single mother who started popping pills on the job. The film attempts to tie this behavior to Bev and Mamaw feeling out of place since they left the family homestead in Appalachia (Kentucky, to be specific). They don’t really feel the support of their extended family, whom they only visit once a year, nor do they feel at home in Ohio, where they are viewed as outsiders. I’m not even sure director Howard buys this theory, but it’s there for those who are looking for easy answers.
In fact, the film is full of easy answers. And while we’re given vague ideas of how both Bev and Mamaw were mistreated at different times in their lives, we’re never shown or told in specifics. Perhaps the filmmakers believe that letting our minds imagine the worst would be more effective, but it actually makes it more difficult to identify or feel empathy for their mental state. There are harrowing moments when Bev seems more like she’s suffering from bipolar disorder than drug addiction, but that’s never really explored. Both Adams and Close completely disguise themselves (in very different ways) as people just barely holding on. Their struggles are different, but the way they choose to deal with them is quite similar.
There are stretches where we almost forget that Vance is our vantage point, gazing at these stories with a child’s eyes. In many ways, the biggest shift Howard has made from the book in the telling of Hillbilly Elegy is that he centers on this idea of being embarrassed about where we come from. At Yale, Vance is surrounded by the elite, and he is so used to hiding the specifics of his upbringing that he barely notices he’s doing it. But an ill-advised sequence involving him having a near panic attack over not knowing the differences in the forks and spoons at a fancy dinner seems a little too on the nose and overplayed. I don’t believe that moment ever happened to someone who had been at Yale Law that long. My guess is that Vance had been code switching for years before that.
Watching Adams and Close admirably lean into the white trashiness of it all is actually a great deal of fun, but I got far more of an understanding of Vance’s dilemma out of the performance of Bennett (who was hypnotic in Swallow earlier this year) as sister Lindsay who stayed in Ohio, got married, and had three kids. Her way of dealing with the negative influences around her was to live a life that was radically opposite of her mother’s, and she seems content with that choice. She doesn’t resent her brother for leaving as soon as he could, but that doesn’t mean she won’t call on him when she has too much going on to oversee Bev’s missteps.
The time jumps in the film feel chaotic, and I think that’s meant to deliberately capture the tumultuous memories of the storyteller and the way that sometimes bad memories come flooding back in no particular order, often jumbled together. I do feel bad that Vance went through what he did, but I’m not sure Hillbilly Elegy works as well as it needs to in capturing the nature of inherited pain. These lives aren’t damaged simply because someone made a bad life choice; in most cases, they weren’t given a choice, or given the tools to make the best choice. It’s complicated in a way that such a surface treatment can’t understand. The actors seem to understand that, even if the filmmakers don’t.
The film opens theatrically in Chicago at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema on November 11; it begins streaming on Netflix November 24. Please follow venue, state and CDC health and safety guidelines if attending indoor screenings.
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