Hillbilly Elegy

The film version of J.D. Vance’s memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” arrives on Netflix so encumbered by cultural baggage and expectations that it’s hard to appreciate what it actually is—along with the things it does well, which are numerous, and understated enough to vanish in the haze of the zeitgeist. It’s not a great or even particularly distinctive movie, but it’s heartfelt and plain-spoken enough that it might connect with viewers whose families have dealt with addiction and recovery, domestic abuse, financial deprivation, and other social problems highlighted in the story.

Jumping between 1997 and 2011—earnestly, though not coherently—”Hillbilly Elegy” is another entry in an old sub-genre that could be called “Getting Out”—the story of a sensitive, intelligent main character who grew up in deprivation and disharmony, amid generations that seem doomed to repeat destructive cycles of behavior and never leave the place that formed them. It’s a durable mode of storytelling represented by countless notable films, from “I Vitelloni,” “Mean Streets” and “Cinema Paradiso” to “Boyz N the Hood,” “Girlfight,” “Real Women Have Curves” and the recent “Mickey and the Bear” and “Them That Follow.”

Played as an adult by Gabriel Basso, and as a teenager by Owen Asztalos, J.D. is an eloquent, honorable, decent-souled kid who will end up attending Yale Law School and finding love with an Indian-American law student named Usha (Freida Pinto, doing the best she can in a supportive girlfriend role that’s literally phoned in due to the hero’s travel schedule). But even as life successes accumulate, J.D. remains burdened by the limits of his social class (working-class-to-poor white, mired in unemployment, and at risk of addiction). Things come to a head when, the day before an interview for a summer law clerk job that could fund his next semester of school, he’s called home to deal with his mother Bev (Amy Adams), an addict who’s been in and out of rehab for addiction and just survived a heroin overdose. The past is never past, especially where family is concerned: that’s the closest thing to a message that this film is genuinely interested in.

The Vance clan hails from a small town in Northern Kentucky, the kind of place where families hold onto totaled cars to strip for parts, and neighbors warn kids headed to the local swimming hole to watch out for poisonous snakes. The hero even uses a distant connection to the Hatfield-McCoy feud in conversations with comfortable folks, as a way to convert a background that would ordinarily be a liability into something that seems thrilling and dangerous. 

J.D.’s grandmother Mamaw (Glenn Close) made it out a couple of generations earlier and settled in Middletown, Ohio, the kind of once-thriving factory town that Bruce Springsteen wrote lots of songs about in the early part of his career. But the change in scenery didn’t break the cultural cycles that defined her: Mamaw fled a background rife with domestic violence only to get into an abusive relationship herself, and her daughter’s addiction has made the next generation’s life a living hell.

What’s interesting here is that the filmmakers seem to have made a conscious decision not to explain any of this stuff to people who might not already know about it. Directed by veteran Ron Howard—probably the closest thing to an optimistic Americana specialist still working in big-budget mainstream drama—”Hillbilly Elegy” has little interest in making sweeping statements about the tangled historical roots of white working class Rust Belt grievances against so-called “Blue America.” 

That was the main source of the book’s appeal in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election—and the thing that made it a surprise bestseller, and a sort of Rosetta Stone for media pundits trying to understand what happened—so it’s understandable that the movie version might strike them as evasive for consigning a lot that to the subtext of characters’ conversations and decisions. The editing sometimes cuts quickly between present-day Middletown with its boarded-up storefronts and shuttered manufacturing complexes to earlier eras when there was a sense of economic possibility. When J.D. finds out that his mother is about to be kicked out of the hospital and needs to find an open bed in a recovery facility as soon as possible, he tells family and friends, and their suggestions testify to their own firsthand experience dealing with this problem.

The poker-faced approach often backfires, particularly when “Hillbilly Elegy” focuses on the life of Mamaw, a compassionate yet hardbitten insult-spewing force of nature. Close’s curly wig, huge glasses, deglamorizing makeup, distinct costuming, and performance choices (she has a cigarette in her mouth even when Mamaw is stocking a pantry) have been accused of insensitivity or caricature. But I suspect this may be a case where Howard, screenwriter Vanessa Taylor, and the cast and crew were so determined to be perceived compassionate that they dried out the inherent absurdity of the situations. 

A more challenging (though sure-to-be-controversial) approach might’ve landed the film in a zone similar to the movie version of “Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire,” where you might not have been sure whether it was appropriate to laugh at the horrendous, sometimes borderline-gothic situations depicted onscreen, even though the audience around you was roaring. But it’s actually OK to laugh at outwardly ridiculous real-life horror as long as you understand and appreciate the circumstances—particularly when it’s “your people” who are being depicted, which makes the experience into something intimately cathartic. Howard and company are tourists here, though, so it’s understandable (though in a lot of ways regrettable) that they wouldn’t have the nerve to put their foot down on the tonal accelerator and veer the story into black comedy and surrealism (even though the movie sometimes cries out for that approach, particularly in a flashback where young Mamaw sets her abusive husband on fire in front of a Christmas tree while “O Holy Night” is playing on a radio).

I don’t want to try to invalidate anyone’s take on how believable or empathetic the portrayal of Mamaw is, because everyone’s mileage will vary. But it’s worth pointing out that the seemingly-mandatory credits scroll of real-life photos of the fictionalized characters confirms that Mamaw did indeed look like that—and that a friend who grew up poor and white in small-town Arkansas and watched this film with me and gasped when Close first appeared. “Oh my God,” she said. “It’s my grandmother, except for the cigarette.” 

Likewise, Adams’ performance has been dinged for its unmodulated desperation and histrionics, but I felt stirrings of recognition while watching her scenes opposite the elder and younger J.D. characters, having dealt many times over the decades with a family member whose life is wreck for the same reasons as Bev’s. Addicts who are constantly bottoming out, flirting with recovery and going right back to their previous destructive behaviors aren’t known for their subtlety. 

The hero J.D., as written and performed is a bit dull—this is not a knock against either of the actors, who are doing what the script and director required of them—but it’s the rocklike, reactive nature of the character that makes his escape from hell plausible. Some of the early details lay on the “common man against the snobs” details bit thick—is it really believable that a guy would’ve made it into Yale Law School without learning which utensil to use for which dish, or that there’s more than one kind of white wine?—but the actors sell it, and Howard’s subdued yet borderline-mythologizing approach to J.D. is part of a long snobs-vs.-slobs tradition in American film. I like that the story ends on a slightly unresolved note (immediately spoiled by title cards telling you what happened to everybody), with the hero taking stock in everything that he’s tried to do for his mother and their extended family, and figuring how far he can extend his compassion before it breaks his own back. It feels realistic and right, and it validates something we know to be true: you can’t save others if they won’t save themselves.

I wanted a bigger, bolder, more imaginative take on this story than “Hillbilly Elegy” is willing or able to deliver. But there’s still a lot to like here—particularly the way Howard and his collaborators keep reminding you that the same incantatory defense mechanism that allows people to survive rotten circumstances—family is everything, and relatives always stick together—is also what cements their bondage to the worst forces in their lives. At key points in the films, characters are given a choice to do the morally or legally correct thing or stick by their kin. The baleful closeups of relatives in the room awaiting the decision foretell the decision before it’s been made. Family ties bind.

Available in select theaters today and on Netflix on November 25th.

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