REVIEW: Hillbilly Elegy [2020]

Rating: 5 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 116 minutes
    Release Date: November 24th, 2020 (USA)
    Studio: Netflix
    Director(s): Ron Howard
    Writer(s): Vanessa Taylor / J.D. Vance (memoir)

We don’t really use that term.

If you’re able to get past J.D. Vance‘s unwavering desire to clarify everything he writes as being about the plight of the “white working class” as though the hardships his demographic face aren’t the same as those of minority populations (or that he’d have us believe they’re worse), Hillbilly Elegy the memoir can prove to be a rather damning treatise on America’s consistent ability to let its most desperate citizens down. You can’t blame people for thinking that “if” is too big, however, once the privilege of Vance’s politics has him exonerating governments and corporations from their complicity in creating the environment that breeds those struggles in order to bolster an American Exceptionalism fallacy and place the onus on “hillfolk” to dig themselves out … like he did.

Add anecdotes about his mother’s disowned cousin (she gave birth to a Black daughter) and “tolerant” Mamaw (“it doesn’t matter that I’d love you anyway because you’re definitely not gay”) and you’ll find your sympathies might be better spent on communities less racist, homophobic, and (as Vance admits) ignorant enough to believe bald-faced lies because partisan Republicans shifted their policy stance towards embracing a mistrust of government and the wealthy as though they themselves are salt-of-the-earth laborers rather than the wealthy government entity causing the most damage. Vance’s refusal to acknowledge his interjected politics as what’s keeping his people down therefore prevented me from fully empathizing with the things he says that are undeniably true. My hope then was that a film stripped of such confused commentary might.

What I should have realized, however, was that the lack of time necessary to provide Vance’s interpretations of the events that shaped his life also meant zero room for nuance. Those aforementioned anecdotes he commendably included in the text despite how they described his people’s bigotry didn’t make the cut. Heck, a crucial scene was even changed where J.D. finds the confidence to stand up to his mother Bev after she demands he give her his urine for a drug test solely because he was afraid his wasn’t clean either after smoking some pot. The producers (of which Vance is one) decided to draw a hardline in the sand on narcotics use instead—keeping him the exact opposite of the self-destructive anchor saddled around his neck sense birth.

Why? I have to believe it’s because they didn’t think the film’s target audience could handle complexity. Why show the gray area when you can lean into the “white” (pun intended) and ignore the black? I can’t blame them for this decision, but it ultimately neuters what was good about the book to placate a demographic that has hailed both it and the film (sometimes sight unseen) as a depiction of the American Dream being a right rather than luck. Screenwriter Vanessa Taylor goes so far as to transforming the narrative to fit a structure that centers J.D. the Yale law student (Gabriel Basso) in order for J.D. the youth in crisis (Owen Asztalos) to exist as memories and motivations for a climactic truth that won’t come lightly.

The result is, for better or worse, more of an elegy for the Jackson, Kentucky hill folk of his ancestry than the memoir because it literally pushes them to the fringes so Vance’s new life built from assimilation can shine as the true source for happily-ever-after. Where the text sought to contextualize Appalachia’s place in relation to the country, Ron Howard‘s film seeks to firmly dismiss it as an “other” in need of evolution. J.D. the success story is thus the hero here precisely because he left. He escaped the cycle that consumed his mother (Amy Adams‘ Bev) and grandmother (Glenn Close‘s Mamaw) to find love (Freida Pinto‘s Usha, an Indian woman forced into augmenting this message by saying her father came to America “with nothing”) and hope.

It shouldn’t be surprising, though, since the only mention of the word “integration” I recall reading was in relation to class. Vance was talking about how the “white working class” had an exponentially greater chance of finding the American Dream in an “integrated” Utah than a “financially segregated” Kentucky. He’s not wrong. His use of those terms despite his almost pathological desire to ignore race completely leaves a lot to be desired, but one of the largest issues plaguing these communities is the economic disparity between rich and poor. It’s one of the largest issues plaguing the United States—one that repurposed a phrase meant to describe an impossible task (“pull yourself up by your bootstraps”) into a challenge, from the rich, that falsely posits the impossible is possible for the poor.

So rather than truly set the chaotic drama so many Americans have the PTSD to prove as something that simultaneously shapes lives and destroys them, Hillbilly Elegy the movie positions it as that which we must hide as though it’s existence is a dirty little secret. Rather than allow Bev to coexist as a victim of abuse and perpetrator of it, she’s rendered into a violently loud caricature future generations must leave behind (as if doing so is as simple as making a choice). The only figure that retains substance is Mamaw. She’s the only one that refuses to apologize for who she and the people around her are. Its mark leaves guilt and regret, but she’s damned if she’ll let it take another Vance down early.

Those scenes shared by Close and Asztalos are therefore the best and most authentic ones because their only agenda is turning a mirror onto truth. They’re showing how a crotchety old woman whose seen the error of her ways via hindsight has steeled herself to ensuring she doesn’t make the same mistakes twice (or sit back silently while watching her daughter follow them). This is the tough love that shaped Vance’s future. Hers are the sacrifices that showed him selflessness, self-pity, and disillusionment were exactly what this country wants him to feel in order to keep his people far away from the gates of prosperity that it keeps. It’s why the book very clearly states how Mamaw was a Democrat and why J.D.’s conservatism is so damningly self-defeating.

That relationship is only rivaled by the one shared with Vance’s sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett as both teen and adult). She was also more of a maternal figure in his life than their mother. She tragically fits that bill for Bev too. To watch her break the cycle of abuse for her own children despite not physically getting out like her brother did with the Marines and college is actually the most inspiring part of a whole that can’t help beg the question of why this specific story deserves such widespread appeal. Her quiet evolution and subtle shift forward to ensure her family won’t suffer the same fate as so many Vances before them is where true empathy and sorrow is earned. Not women’s love quashing J.D.’s anger.

The film is crippled by many of the book’s issues as a result. It superficially presents a problem without daring to provide answers beyond an abstract call for “agency.” That it also glosses over the privilege being “white working class” affords above “minority working class” insofar as allowing upward mobility to be a real possibility is where it fails to truly see just how common J.D.’s story of assimilation is. The only people who believe it’s unique are the wealthy Republicans exploiting his story as a badge of honor rather than a damning excoriation on their policies. The fact it was so hard for Vance to succeed is the point—not that he did. He is an exception, but the rule he proves isn’t the one he thinks.

[1] HILLBILLY ELEGY: (L to R) Amy Adams (“Bev”), Gabriel Basso (“J.D. Vance”). Photo Cr. Lacey Terrell/NETFLIX © 2020
[2] HILLBILLY ELEGY: (L to R) Haley Bennett (“Lindsay”), Glenn Close (“Mamaw”), Owen Asztalos (“Young J.D. Vance”). Photo Cr. Lacey Terrell/NETFLIX © 2020
[3] HILLBILLY ELEGY: (L to R) Haley Bennett (“Lindsay”), Gabriel Basso (J.D. Vance), Amy Adams (“Bev”). Photo Cr. Lacey Terrell/NETFLIX © 2020

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