What happens if you take a personal memoir and strip it of everything that made it unique? You get Hillbilly Elegy.
The opening line of J.D Vance’s 2016 sleeper hit memoir Hillbilly Elegy is “I find the existence of the book you hold in your hands somewhat absurd.” While that’s a little hyperbolic – its existence could be described as unlikely, at best – the way the book became a lightning rod upon its release is actually absurd. Vance’s Appalachian-set memoir focussed largely on his upbringing by his drug addict mother Bev and his no-holds-barred grandmother Mamaw, but it also gave an insight into the mind of America’s conservative underclass. In 2016, if you wanted an explainer on the rise of Trump, Hillbilly Elegy wasn’t the worst place to start.
Where Hillbilly Elegy fell short, attracting so much criticism that an entire book of essays was written in response, was Vance’s inability to see past his own experience to the societal and economic insecurity that underpins it. Hillbilly Elegy is an ode to self-reliance and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps disguised as a personal memoir. Or, to put it as Vance does:
“We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese. These are the lies we tell ourselves to solve the cognitive dissonance – the broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach.”
While Vance acknowledges his privilege, fleetingly, the struggles of people held down by a white patriarchal society go entirely ignored. He attributes Obama’s unpopularity among poor, white, conservatives to Obama’s elitism, dedicating only a few obligatory sentences to how his race might have had an impact on why that demographic didn’t vote for him.
That’s not to say Vance’s retelling of his own triumph against seemingly insurmountable adversity isn’t fascinating in its own way. For all its philosophical failings, Hillbilly Elegy is an insightful chronicle of a troubled family, and an unsentimental reflection on an oft-misjudged part of US society, the Appalachian South.
Which is why I say that the existence of the film Hillbilly Elegy, one of the worst films of this year or maybe any year, is utterly absurd.
The film takes a story that isn’t lacking for depth or polemic, and flattens down its edges so much that it barely captures Vance’s history, let alone his beliefs. It takes Vance’s rich, complex characters, and smashes them into memes, caricatures and Oscar clips. It’s not just a disservice to this story and the community it focuses on, it’s an attack on anybody who happens to accidentally scroll past it on the Netflix carousel.
Blame can first be laid at the feet of director Ron Howard and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor. Howard, overappreciated by studios and underappreciated by critics, is a bizarrely bad fit for this story. As a director, he sits at the midpoint of a few acclaimed auteurs: he lacks the heart and the scale of Steven Spielberg, but also lacks the clinical technical mastery of, say, David Fincher. Beyond the occasional foray into vaguely uplifting patriotism, Howard is also a staunchly apolitical director. In Hillbilly Elegy, he offers no take on the material, no viewpoint on the characters, and no eye for capturing or commenting on the society that traps them. The strongest choice he makes is to light the entire thing like a Dove commercial, which does neither the actors nor the audience any favours.
To give Howard his due, I have no idea what he could have done with the screenplay that Vanessa Taylor has handed him. Taylor, who has done great work on The Shape of Water and Hope Spring, cuts Vance’s chronologically told memoir into two parallel plotlines, with scenes cutting back and forth so incomprehensibly it feels like you’re watching the film on shuffle. In the first, we follow JD (Gabriel Basso) as he finds himself a complete fish out of water at Yale Law School but also has to deal with his relapsing mother Bev (Amy Adams). In the second, we flash back to JD growing up with the tough-loving Mamaw (Glenn Close), who forcibly takes him under her wing after Bev proves herself incapable of parenting.
Not only is Taylor’s dialogue uncomfortably leaden (and it’s incredibly clear where she’s lifting lines directly from Vance), it reduces complex emotional processes and relationships into blunt point-A-to-point-B scenes. This is most egregious in a scene suggesting the source of Bev’s addiction, which cuts straight from her watching the pallbearers at her father’s funeral to her injecting a patient with a needle. Vance’s memoir beautifully details Bev’s dislodgement by grief over a few pages, explaining the gap between his mother’s ambitions and her inability to deal with the tragedy around her, but Taylor reduces it to that one simple development. It’s more than an insult to the audience’s intelligence, it’s a betrayal of the real life characters that Vance managed to depict without judgement, even when some simplification would be the easier choice.
Between them, Howard and Taylor have left their cast almost entirely adrift, an abdication of responsibility that is especially tough on the two leads, Adam and Close, with 13 Oscar nominations (and losses) between them. Whatever their hopes, Hillbilly Elegy is unlikely to boost that tally to 15. Neither actor is served by the chopped up chronology, which leaves them unable to build a coherent character, let alone a good performance. It’s not that the film is beyond their abilities: in particular, this is firmly within Adams’ wheelhouse, having done strong, subtle work in a similar milieu in both The Fighter and Junebug. Here, though, she screeches, hoots and flails at the heavens, as if she might find a character there. But not even an actor of her formidable talent can find a character where only assumption exists.
Glenn Close, unrecognisable in both appearance and performance, fares little better. The characterisation of Mawmaw is one of the biggest failures of the film; the book offered a detailed, compassionate portrait of Mamaw’s struggle and eventual victory against her circumstances, and the bitterness that might settle upon a person who had endured such hardship. Here, Mamaw’s main hardship is her wig, and thus Close is left playing block colours rather than shades of gray.
One of the central tenets of Hillbilly Elegy, the book, has stuck with me. Not for being correct, but for how it unfortunately relates to its adaptation. Vance writes, “How much of our lives, good and bad, should we credit to our personal decisions, and how much is just inheritance of our culture, our families and our parents who have failed their culture?”
It is a cruel justification of Vance’s philosophy that everything bad about Hillbilly Elegy can be credited solely to the people who made it. It is the shiny product of a company keen to cash in on a book’s cultural cache for Oscars. Not only does it entirely fail to provide an insight into Appalachian society it depicts, it can’t even provide a coherent picture of the people within that society. They represent nothing, not even the real people they’re based on. It can be worthwhile to engage with the politics and ideas of art you disagree with, but when that art has none? Don’t pass go, don’t collect your Oscars, get straight in the bin.
You can watch Hillbilly Elegy on Netflix now.
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