We’ve all been forced to read books back in school for a grade. Some people got lucky with their forced reading material, such as my high school AP Lit class where I was able to read Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men. Other times, we strikeout. In college, I had to read Wuthering Heights and I was forbidden from actually reading the end of the book thanks to some stodgy theatre professors. Then you have books that are right down the middle, like J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy.
Fuming from the 2016 election, one of my history professors assigned the book to us to offer some explanation for Donald Trump winning the presidency on the back of Rust Belt states like Ohio. As someone who’s father’s side of the family grew up in Ohio and visits there fairly often, most of the book rings true and offers up a compelling presentation of a sector of life that is sorely ignored by people in more Democratic states. It’s a good read and offers people an opportunity to reach outside of their comfort zones, to provide insight into a subject of the American identity. Sure, there are plenty of criticisms you can lodge at the book (some more valid than others), but it’s a perspective that still is appreciated at the end of the day.
Now, I want you to take all of that valuable discussion that I just mentioned, take it outside, put a shotgun into its mouth, and pull the trigger. This is Hillbilly Elegy the movie, and the movie has the same impact as chewing week-old gum.
Director: Ron Howard
Release Date: November 24, 2020 (Netflix)
It’s hard to try and approach this film after having read the book and explain why the movie does such a disservice to the original novel, but if there’s one takeaway I had, it’s that everything here feels so absolutely indifferent to its subject matter. Serving as a dramatized retelling of Vance’s life, we see him as a child dealing with the two maternal figures in his life: his mother, Bev (Amy Adams), and his Mamaw/Grandma (Glenn Close). It’s meant to serve as an expose of an upbringing in Appalachia and the people that live there from someone who lived there.
The problem is that the actual movie itself doesn’t really seem to care about relating to or discussing life in rural Ohio or anything of the like. Hillbilly Elegy decides to frame the story about Bev’s drug addiction with Vance returning from Yale to take care of her for a short while before returning up for an interview. There’s no time to actually examine the material from the book, with the film, instead, going for the lowest common denominator of entertainment. What we get is a family drama that wouldn’t be uncommon from a made-for-TV movie or an off-Broadway play.
The film rarely attempts to say anything else about the culture it’s depicting outside of the fact that it cannibalizes the people within it and trying to escape from the economic and social quagmire there is next to impossible. We’re told that Bev was the second smartest in her class and had such a bright future, but none of that matters. She became a heroin addict, abused her children, and acts out of spite to others, refusing help from anyone. Despite her potential, she simply couldn’t escape from her rural upbringing. That’s some decent social commentary, but that moment only comes an hour and a half into the film. Until then, it plays out like something from Forest Gump, complete with all of the hokeyness but none of the sincerity.
Contrary to the film, there was a certain authenticity to the book in seeing Vance recount stories from his youth and how that shaped him into the man he is today. There were excerpts from people that weren’t even in relation to his own upbringing, just conversations with outsiders who helped to give a perspective on the situation and life in rural towns. There is merit to the novel and it paints a vivid picture of a subject of life that has gone greatly underrepresented in media. The movie has none of that and often goes into some frankly eye-rolling territory to replicate the same insight.
One scene fairly early on in the film has Vance talking to several lawyers from major law firms who really only notice him once he brings up his heritage. One lawyer even goes so far as to call people who live in Appalachia rednecks, which is supposed to come across as high-class snobbery meant to highlight these Ivy League Elites as being out of class with the REAL Americans. There is an attempt to make social commentary but is often too little, too late, or so overt that it circles back around into self-parody.
I understand it may be easy to consider this a review where the biggest criticism is “it’s not like the book, ergo it’s bad.” Adaptations are the bread and butter for most major Hollywood films and changes need to be made in the transition between mediums. The movie probably would have been just as poor if the action stopped to go into those asides from other people about the struggles of their lives. There’s a fine balance that needs to be struck to maintain the truth of the source material and the embellishments of film, but Hillybilly Elegy didn’t even attempt to find that middle ground.
There’s no real worthwhile perspective that the film is trying to deliver to audiences. It pretty much shows us what are prejudices about people from Appalachia are like and calls it a day, which simply isn’t good enough. Look, I’ve been there and I’ve got family over there. Things are more complicated than what the film version of Hillbilly Elegy is showing. The film really only serves as an Oscar vehicle from Close and Adams, who deliver two performances that couldn’t be further apart in the quality department.
Close’s turn as Mamaw is perfectly fine, showing the wide range she has as an actress. It’s not her best work, but at least it feels like she really became this dominant matriarchal figure who has lived a long and rough life. As for Amy Adams… I’m not going to sugar coat it: I thought she was frankly awful here. The majority of her screentime was spent screaming to the camera, almost as if she believes the stereotype that GOOD ACTING IS ONLY ABOUT SHOUTING is true. She yells, she flails herself around, and it’s frankly embarrassing to watch. She’s a good actress, if not a great one, but Hillbilly Elegy is one of her worst performances in a long, long time.
We’re meant to find her character frustrating, a product of societal failure, and there are ways of making that work. Take Joker, which attempts to portray how people with mental health struggles that desperately need help fall through the cracks in the system with mixed results, but at least Joker had a point to it all. Hillbilly Elegy just points to Adams’ character as she’s struggling to survive and holds up a sign saying that we should feel bad for her. There’s no solid explanation for why I should, nothing to inform me why anyone would feel bad for her, and I’m not going to do it just because Hans Zimmer’s sad music starts to swell.
There’s been a lot of talk about Hillbilly Elegy being one of the worst movies of the year. To that, I have to tilt my head. Is it bad? Oh yes, it’s a bad film, but awful? Dolittle awful? Artemis Fowl awful? That’s a stretch. It’s too lifeless to offend anyone. I mean, the movie offended me because of Adams’ poor performance, but as a whole Hillbilly Elegy just doesn’t leave much of an impression. It doesn’t do anything to convey the tone and gravitas of the memoir, instead, delivering a basic story that isn’t unique or interesting in any fashion.
The chewed gum example may have been a perfect analogy the more I think about it. It probably had a flavor once upon a time, but now? It’s disgusting and you’re just looking for a trash can to toss it out in, never to remember it again. Hillbilly Elegy deserved better, but Ron Howard certainly didn’t deliver.