When J.D. Vance’s memoir hit shelves in 2016, it became a surprise bestseller, a controversy magnet and an impromptu state-of-the-nation address — the must-read if you wanted insight into why Donald Trump was able to harness rage and frustration of the white underclass into a single Presidential win. A tale of down-South struggle and upward-mobility ambition, it regaled readers with one man’s roots in the backwoods of Kentucky, his family’s migration to rust-belt Ohio and his hardscrabble journey through an Ivy League institution’s hallowed halls. This Appalachia-to-Yale odyssey also touched on domestic abuse, substance dependency, family values, harsh economic realities, the stubborn pride of “hillbillies” and the prejudice they faced when talking to snooty elites. It’s a survivalist tale in which American structures predicated on haves v. have-nots sub in for an unforgiving Mother Nature, and a bootstrap mentality is all that’s needed to transcend the late-capitalism blues. The memoir aspect was compelling. Vance’s fried-baloney-sandwich-for-thought notions about how the poor just need to get their shit together were … less so, cultural bona fides or not.
A hot-button bestseller means book clubs and brand recognition, which usually means a movie, which specifically means a movie being released during a period where industry types — possibly in some sort of Academy involving Arts and Sciences — might weigh in with potentially golden results. Hence, we now have Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy, a live-action rendering of various cartoonish aspects of Vance’s book that strives for the Important Statement Seal of Approval. (The film is currently screening in select theaters, though trust us when we say you don’t want to risk your life seeing this. It hits Netflix on November 24th.) The politically conservative, anti-welfare streak in the author’s writing feels surgically removed; only the turbulence remains, smothered in the syrup (or “syrrpp,” a Southern pronunciation that’s affectionately mocked here) of seasonal treacle. No one would accuse this adaptation of owning the libs or pandering to a base. It’s merely poverty-class cosplay, a pantomime of what people derisively call “white trash” triumph and tragedy being sold as prestige drama. It’s an attempt to serve Spam on a sterling silver platter.
Down in Jackson, KY, in 1997, young Vance (Owen Asztalos) spends his idyllic summer days biking around the backwoods, waxing poetic about turtles and swimming in a creek. He’s visiting from Ohio, where his mom, Beverly (Amy Adams) has taken him and his sister, Lindsay (Haley Bennett) to visit their kin. When some local boys taunt him and beat him up, Vance’s adult relatives smack the teen bullies around — there’s a code that dictates “your people” always have your back no matter what. You can tell Beverley has a fondness for this place where you grew up, and that she’s very close to her father, who J.D. calls “Papaw” (legendary ’70s character actor Bo Hopkins, though don’t blink or you’ll miss him). You also sense that she can’t wait to go back North, and some of that has to do with her mother.
Ah yes, Mamaw — the raging force of nature that unofficially runs the clan, dispenses her own brand of nicotine-stained tough love, and virtually walks away with the film in her pistol-packed purse. If she wasn’t real, she’d have to be invented so Glenn Close could turn her into a platitude-spouting Godzilla stomping all over the bluegrass region and Buckeye State. With her insert-finger-in-light-socket hairdo, oversized ‘Merican flag t-shirts and lemon-sucking scowl, Mamaw is both a holy terror and the maternal caregiver J.D. needs when the volatile, opoid-addicted Bev gets violent or goes A.W.O.L. The role is practically reverse-engineered for the veteran actor to play it somewhere between “I will not be ignored!” and “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. Demille!” The performance itself might be best summed up by the statement, “This is what happens when you don’t give Glenn Close the Oscar for The Wife.”
She’s also the single best thing about this cinematic mess in a calico dress as well, however, and you can feel the film’s energy meter jump near the red every time Close shuffles, ambles or hobbles on screen. As with so many actors who you grow accustomed seeing in big, red-carpet-friendly films, we sometimes take the Fatal Attraction (or The Big Chill, or Dangerous Liaisons, or, er, Albert Nobbs — take your pick) star’s immense talents for granted. This is a swing-for-the-fences turn that seeks to burn those fences to cinder, a solo piece of termite art eating away the boundaries of the terrible art it’s stuck in. Close is the one that gets to growl the money line — “Family’s the only thing that means a goddamn” — and she kills it. Somewhere, there’s a version of this film that not only has Mamaw setting her abusive husband on fire and smoking roughly 10,000 cigarettes, but also fighting crime, presenting arguments before the Supreme Court, telling those mucky-mucks in Mission Control to “kiss my ruby-red ass” while she pilots a damaged space shuttle safely back to Earth. We’d happily watch that over this tour of Americana miserablism writ small.
Vance’s wayward, chaotic youth is only half of Hillbilly Elegy; the other half focuses on the adult J.D. (Gabriel Basso) trying to balance a country-fish-outta-water existence at Yale, a relationship with his future wife, Usha (Freida Pinto), and taking care of his mom after she’s overdosed on heroin. Given that Close’s Mamaw is mostly absent from these scenes, they tend to pale in comparison to the earlier days of sorrow and pity no matter how they are woven in to the mix. But that doesn’t quite explain the clumsy handling of so many aspects of the later-years sections, from a sequence in which Vance suffers the slings and arrows of being stereotyped by white-shoe law firms at a recruiting dinner (you can practically see the scene deflate before your eyes) to the cross-cutting between a heshers-and-huffers vandalism party and Vance raging at his mom’s junkie ex-boyfriend.
And while Adams is as dependable as ever regardless of which timeline she’s mood-swinging through, she also feels stuck in a film that forces her to stand in for a cultural phenomenon that the movie is only half-heartedly interested in exploring. Beverly is a rich character: a former academic superstar, a single teen mom, a woman frustrated by the choices (or lack thereof) she’s been given, a witness to and victim of domestic abuse, a walking emotional minefield, a drug addict, a survivor, a very human face on a sociological set of statistics. There’s a lot to honor and to play with here, which is why it’s frustrating that she feels penned in by the film’s narrow parameters of what Bev has to be during any given moment. Stuck under wigs you might describe as “ratty” and “rattier” and forced to rely on a zero-to-60 m.p.h. scream, Adams gamely tries to suggest an inner turmoil bubbling to the surface. But the movie just wants her to be a symbol and/or a source of angst or sainthood for Vance. Even her standout bits, like a stoned rollerskating spree through the hospital she works at, feel oddly uneven. You’ve heard of people constructing a performance in the cutting room? This is an example of one that feels like it was whittled down by editors from an oak to a toothpick.
There is a snapshot quality to Vance’s firsthand experience of hard-hit small towns, paycheck-to-paycheck existences, loud lives of desperation and the whiplash of going from working class to coastal elite. Hillbilly Elegy pushes many of the particulars of that to the foreground; the bigger picture, the one that frames his story, remains out of focus. It has emphasized the agony and ecstasy of his story over Vance’s own class-conscious tsk-tsking, which makes this seem like the novel has been stripped for nothing but by-the-book melodrama and uplift. Some critics have accused the movie of being a rich person’s version of what poor people go through. That may be giving it too much credit — even a rich person would note how other factors like race and politics keep these cycles going generation after generation. This isn’t Southern-hollow-to-American-success-story sociology. It’s merely hollow show business.