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‘Hillbilly Elegy’ Is Well-Meaning Nothingness

Straining to be compassionate to a red-state world it doesn’t understand, this starry Hollywood adaptation of the controversial J.D. Vance memoir demonstrates that empathy is less important than genuine curiosity

Now that Joe Biden has been declared the winner in the presidential election, the media has begun engaging in a fresh round of “What can we learn from Trump voters?” chin-stroking, a wholly useless intellectual exercise. It’s not that his supporters aren’t human beings with real feelings — it’s that, in a futile bid to assure their critics that they’re being fair-minded, journalists bend over backwards to try to “understand” the Other Side, which always smacks of condescension and comes across as terribly superficial. This is especially true when reporting on Flyover Country — that great big blob of geography in between New York and L.A. that’s been lazily classified as the “Real America.” 

To that end, with a few notable exceptions, it’s advisable to steer clear of Hollywood films about the Real America, which is often depicted as a depraved hellscape or a bastion of pure souls filled with common sense and basic decency. Both portrayals are ridiculous abstractions and best ignored, but the new film Hillbilly Elegy is its own variation on this disreputable subgenre. Made with an abundance of compassion by an Oscar-winning filmmaker and two Oscar-nominated actors, this adaptation of the bestselling (and widely derided) J.D. Vance memoir tries very, very, very hard to be a sympathetic look at Appalachian country without any coastal-elite bias. It’s hard to imagine anyone from that region of America being angered by Hillbilly Elegy — the movie seems designed primarily to avoid offense. (The film’s tagline might as well be “We come in peace.”) But having sympathy isn’t the same as being helpful — or illuminating. This story of one poor, white working-class family drowns in its own pointlessness. By not wanting to offend, Hillbilly Elegy succeeds in doing nothing at all, which in some ways is an even graver offense.

Gabriel Basso stars as J.D., who’s attending Yale’s law school and dating bright, beautiful classmate Usha (Freida Pinto). J.D. is a sharp guy with a promising future, which is why it irks him when those upper-crust Yalies make him feel bad because he grew up in small-town Ohio and had family in Appalachia. (At a fancy banquet where he’s trying to impress his professors, they treat his uncultured upbringing like this adorable curiosity — the equivalent of being raised by wolves.) But on the eve of an important job interview, J.D. gets terrible news: His mom Bev (Amy Adams) is in the hospital because of a drug overdose. This isn’t the first time something like this has happened, and so J.D. has to drive home to see how she’s doing, possibly throwing away that promising future in the process. 

The film, directed by Ron Howard, operates on two separate timelines, bouncing back and forth from the “present” to flashbacks of J.D. as a boy (Owen Asztalos) coming of age with his volatile single mom and his colorful grandmother Mamaw (Glenn Close). His was a difficult childhood due to Bev’s drug addiction and the family’s dire financial situation, but Mamaw’s tough love will help him sharpen his focus so that he can get an education and escape this cycle of poverty.

There’s room for smart films about working-class whites who dwell far away from America’s metropolises. Jeff Nichols has made excellent movies about different regions of the country, including Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter. Phil Morrison’s marvelous 2005 culture-clash drama Junebug, which introduced Adams to the world (and earned the actress her first Oscar nomination), is a deeply moving but also wise and funny look at small-town North Carolina. And, as a more extreme example, you should seek out 2015’s The Other Side, Roberto Minervini’s disturbing docu-fiction portrait of desperate people living on the margins in rural Louisiana. Each of these movies digs into its milieu, conveying a sense of authenticity while offering a nuanced take on this mythic Real America that, let’s be honest, doesn’t even exist.

By comparison, Hillbilly Elegy is just Oscar-bait, a blandly inspirational redemption drama in which the story’s underlying social issues are merely plot obstacles that our hero will overcome as part of his quest narrative. Although it’s based on a memoir, the movie really could have been set anywhere. Appalachia isn’t examined in any specific sort of way — it’s just a bad place where bad things happen. You won’t learn anything significant about the region — you won’t feel like you understand these people in any deeper way than when you started the film. Howard doesn’t want to be accused of exploiting this region or engaging in poverty porn, so he resorts to the benign feel-good machinations of award-season storytelling. His film doesn’t judge its characters, but it never bothers to think much about them, either.

With their tacky wardrobes and unfashionable hairstyling, Adams and Close overtly opt for the disappear-into-their-roles brand of acting that’s often overrated. (This is even more troublesome and sexist when it pertains to actresses, who get praised when they tamp down their attractiveness to play “ordinary” people.) It’s a credit to them both that they don’t turn Bev and Mamaw into insulting “hick” caricatures. But that’s not the same as crafting fully-formed individuals. Bev is a raging mess — a stressed-out, overworked mom who takes her anger out on her children (Haley Bennett plays her daughter) — while Mamaw (Bev’s mom) is a perpetually grumpy old broad with tons of ‘tude. In other words, they’re clichés with a heart of gold, and no matter how much Howard and his cast try to humanize them, they come across as “troubled characters from the parts of America we’d prefer to pretend don’t exist” types. 

For those who worried that Hillbilly Elegy would mock red-state denizens or elevate them to the level of misunderstood saints, I suppose it’s faintly good news to report that the movie does neither. But as played by Adams and Close, Bev and Mamaw are merely “interesting acting challenges” that I’m sure will prove fascinating to hear about during awards season as the stars expound on their “process” again and again. 

Glenn Close as Mamaw, and Amy Adams as Bev

Before Hillbilly Elegy was shown to critics, there was plenty of reason to be suspicious of the movie, particularly because both Vance and his book have been roundly criticized. (Take your pick of viable charges: He’s an opportunist capitalizing on his childhood, the book peddles his experience as somehow emblematic of a whole swath of America or that Vance has lots of dumb views that aren’t worth amplifying.) It seems like Howard, whose Best Picture-winning A Beautiful Day epitomized Hollywood’s prettying-up of real stories, is aware of the controversy surrounding the memoir, laboring to make J.D. an aw-shucks good guy who has to sift through the damage left by his mom after she winds up in the hospital. Hooked on painkillers from her years as a nurse, Bev has moved on to heroin, and she’s positioned as the film’s cautionary tale — the personification of the underclasses’ lack of economic opportunity and rampant drug problem. J.D. loves his mom, but he recognizes that he can’t save her — she’s going to have to pull herself out of her own hell. 

Hillbilly Elegy endorses J.D.’s firm but brokenhearted viewpoint of his mom’s struggles — if she won’t help herself, there’s little he can do — but because Howard spends not one single second investigating how factors like drug addiction and poverty work together to imperil families in economically challenged communities, Hillbilly Elegy never evinces any genuine empathy for the world it’s supposed to be chronicling. J.D.’s story is less about making peace with his fraught upbringing than being celebrated for rising above it — for essentially getting the happy ending of a successful career by moving away from the sticks. The filmmakers feel sorry about America’s Bevs, but damned if they know what to do about it — or why it happens in the first place. They’re just here to inspire us.

Adams and Gabriel Basso as J.D. Vance

With another election over, it’s once again tempting to dismiss the states that went for Trump as mere breeding grounds for redneck bigots. It’s a gross generalization that ignores the complexity of people — not to mention disregards everyone who didn’t vote for him in those states. But that being said, we also don’t need to coddle Trump voters, as if some magical sit-down between us and them will finally allow left-leaning folks to understand the pain Trumpers are experiencing. (Of course, our pain never seems important in these considerations, but we’ll save that for another time.) 

Instead, what’s needed are smart, meticulous, engaged works of art that dissect and critique the economic, cultural and social factors that shape the mindset of certain Americans — not to justify that behavior but to get closer to diagnosing what’s underneath to see if it can ever be repaired. No doubt lots of people bought J.D. Vance’s memoir seeking such insights. I’d never bothered reading the book, but after seeing Ron Howard’s movie, I feel like I’m no closer to understanding Appalachia, Real America, Trump voters or anything else. I have no doubt that Howard and all those involved will stress that they wanted to offer a loving overview of the Vance family — they come in peace. But the film’s lack of curiosity — its inability to make viewers feel like they’re living in the skin of these characters — is its own act of unkindness. 

When I think about class divides in America, I often think of a British author, E.M. Forster, whose Howards End featured the wealthy, callous Henry Wilcox, who couldn’t be bothered being concerned about the plight of those less fortunate. “The poor are poor,” Wilcox advised, “and one’s sorry for them, but there it is.” Hollywood liberals give conservatives a hard time for being heartless about those in need. But I fail to see how Hillbilly Elegy’s well-meaning, worthless uplift is a greater act of charity.