‘Hillbilly Elegy’ proposes that to escape poverty, you just have to want to go to Yale bad enough
I watched Hillbilly Elegy, hoping that it might help explain something to me about the mindset of red state America, but all I got was Glenn Close in this lousy t-shirt.
HILLBILLY ELEGY ★(1/5 stars)
Directed by: Ron Howard
Written by: J.D. Vance, Vanessa Taylor
Starring: Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Gabriel Basso, Owen Aztalos, Haley Bennett
Running time: 116 min
I suppose you can’t blame Ron Howard, who directed this adaptation of the controversial 2016 memoir by J.D. Vance, for wanting to downscale his focus from sociological to personal. Empathetic character studies are his wheelhouse. But nothing in this story of a poor Ohio boy who scraps his way to Yale Law School remotely connects what the country has been living through the past five years. There’s only a vague message about bootstraps and personal responsibility, and a whole lot of bad wigs.
Gabriel Basso stars as J.D. Vance, author of the memoir, whom we meet as an adult as he’s trying to navigate a fancy reception for Yalies seeking prestigious law internships. The forks at the place settings stymie him in particular, so he panic-calls his girlfriend (Frieda Pinto, in the quintessential helpful-woman-on-the-phone role) for a briefing. He doesn’t come from money, so how would he know cutlery nuance? Dude, you don’t have to have grown up rich, you only have to have seen “Pretty Woman.”
Howard tells the majority of the film in flashback, with young J.D. (Owen Asztalos) enduring his poverty-stricken upbringing in Kentucky and then Middletown, Ohio. He finds himself hemmed in by the unpredictability of his oft-abusive addict mom (Amy Adams), rampant familial chaos, the contagious despair of their downtrodden neighborhood, and a financial inability to even keep up with his school supplies. His sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett), a caring soul, telegraphs right away via her boyfriend-devotion that early motherhood will be her destiny. J.D.’s only reliable source of support and inspiration is his grandmother, Mamaw (Glenn Close), who chainsmokes and spits out salty aphorisms. It’s worth noting that Close, hammy as she looks, does bear a striking resemblance to the real Mamaw, seen over the credits.
It’s all overacted and embarrassing, and although I understand the appeal to an actor of these mawkish roles, uglying up as Oscar bait and all, it’s still disappointing to see Close and especially Adams get sucked into the clichés. Their surroundings are what you’d think, cluttered small houses, cars with filthy windows, omnipresent cigarettes, and slack jaws.
Hillbilly Elegy is a revolving carousel of bad and worse experiences that threaten to subsume the protagonist, until he escapes. That his ultimate salvation comes via an elite legal firm, paired with the fact that real-life Vance went on to become a venture capitalist, pretty handily tells you the movie’s position on why his family, and everyone around them, floundered. They just didn’t really want to get out. “You gotta decide,” Mamaw tells J.D. either just before or after kicking him out of her car. “You wanna be somebody or not?”
There’s an alternate telling of this story in which we might learn about Lindsay’s abstinence-only sex education utterly failing her; about the vicious and relentless marketing of OxyContin to poor communities; about our country’s abandonment of quality public education, and on and on. This is also a movie about rural white America that doesn’t even contain a hint of racism or anti-immigrant sentiment, which also seems unrealistic. When adult J.D. shows his mom a picture of his girlfriend, her first question is “What is she?”, and I thought maybe we were finally in for a hard look at white working-class racism. But no, her only follow-up is that the gf is “pretty.”
How can you adapt a tome that people have cited as a guidebook to red America, and completely abdicate the problematic parts? It’s just generic, sad, crushing poverty, and one guy who survived to tell the harrowing tale from the lofty, condescending heights of his post-Yale career. This is no hillbilly elegy. It’s yet another paean to the Ivy League.