2016 and 2020: Hillbilly hysteria

Hillbilly Elegy, 2020, Netflix

actors in film

Haley Bennett, Glenn Close and Owen Asztalos (as the young J.D.)

Review by Peter Hulm

In November 2020, Hillbilly Elegy, the film of the 2016 book, outraged the critics as the original best-selling "memoir" by J.D. Vance never did. Why is instructive, about American tropes of social explanation as about the difference four years of Trumpian politics have made in the nation's intellectual life.

As reworked by Ron Howard, the phenomenally successful and prolific former child actor and director of Splash, the book from a former student of Judge Brett Kavanagh and self-declared conservative Republican, this story of a rust-dirt-poor Appalachian child who fights his way out of dead-end life and becomes a lawyer, becomes the film most critics hated most this year.

David Sims, in his review for The Atlantic, wrote that the movie boasts an "Oscar-friendly narrative of personal triumph" but argued that it is "also one of the worst movies of the year."

A common reaction when it appeared on Netflix: "The movie fails to express any meaningful understanding of the plight of the American working class, instead caricaturing some of the country’s most disenfranchised citizens for cheap and ineffective pathos."

In fact, Howard's film, given its Netflix premiere on 24 November 2010, does not buttonhole liberals about Trump followers (in contrast to the book), shows how difficult it can be for poor kids to escape their exploitation and how distant middle-class life can seem from the way they have learned to live.

The New Yorker found it odd for Hillbilly Elegy to focus on an academic dinner where the young man (Gabriel Basso) panicks because he does not know what cutlery to use. For New Yorkers it might not resonate, but for many others in the U.S. its East Coast elitism would surely have struck many chords.

As with The Crown, the dramatic reorganization of factual material does not convince. But these days audiences will accept it in favour of a greater truth: that in poor America once dirty work has vanished and hill towns have emptied of all but the hopeless, the military can be a way out of desperation, and staying still is hard work: the student "hero" is simply unable to pay his college tuition without three jobs, and taking his chance at a more prosperous life means turning his back on his addict mother.

Only his tough old grandmother (Glenn Close) makes it clear how difficult it is going to be to change his life, while his mother, who became addicted while gaining access to drugs as a nurse, loses her job for rollerskating through the hospital corridors when high, and loses all hope. In contrast perhaps to the "memoir", Howard does not just give us a message that people can break out of poverty if only they work hard, are emotionally tough, and grasp unappetising opportunities.

It's not "if only" but often "only if". And people who have succeeded are not always dismissive of those who fail.

Glenn Close and Amy Adams (the mother) "are the kind of actors who can make an average movie watchable by their sheer presence" but neither have won an Oscar, despite being nominated seven and six times respectively. Another critic described the film as "a melodramatic movie made in a lab to finally get Glenn Close or Amy Adams their Oscars".

Though Vance "started a venture capital fund with Trump fanboy Peter Thiel" and he is a producer of the film, Howard has said they reached agreement on the treatment, and brushed aside the political implications in favour of a more fundamental treatment of America's poor vs middle-class mores and economic realities.

Howard does not shirk from depicting the difficulty of a poor American in getting health care or rehabitation without an open pocket book. The key turning point in Vance's life, according to the film, is when he realizes that his grandmother's buying an $86 calculator necessary for school forces her to beg from the meals-on-wheels delivery boy for extra food that month because she no longer has money.

What few critics picked up on is how Vance's sister (Haley Bennett) sacrifices herself so that her brother can find a better future.

Some have noted that Howard foregrounds the women in Vance's much more than in his book. Among them, his Indian-American girlfriend (Freida Pinto) whose father came to the U.S. with nothing, but is not entrapped in the systemic exploitaiton characterizing the American poor. It would have taken us outside the film's theme, but this is surely an explanation of immigrant-U.S. poor antagonism and envy.

Many critics have also swallowed whole the idea that Mamaw, as Glenn Close is called, speaks the truth. She and Vance are fans of the Terminator films and she speaks of Good, Bad and Neutral Terminators (the film apparently invents the neutral Terminator idea), hinting that her husband, an alcoholic and abusive husband, was a bad Terminator.

One sympathetic review states: "Hillbilly Elegy tries to indoctrinate that beloved national ethos, which affirms you can escape your past, and achieve prosperity simply through hard work and self-determination."

In reality, Howard's film undercuts this mentality. Vance's right-wing politics, citing racism scholarship as well as "a list of myths" about the working class, are of no interest to Howard.

"Family is the only thing that means a goddamn thing," says Mamaw in what the critic realizes is an incompatible message. What we see of her daughter is hard work, determination, ability and intelligence (we learn she was No.2 in all her school, leading to her hospital nurse's job). Vance does not escape his past until he turns his back on it despite the emotional cost.

Vance only moves forward when he decides to leave his mother behind after her latest relapse, and drives off for an interview to join the middle class (with the help of his girlfriend) that demonstrates his choice, but it is not a triumph or a victory.

The flurry of dismissive commentaries for the film, when the polemical book was given such an easy ride in 2016, highlights the problems American intelligentsia face in discussing U.S. inequality. No reference to the over-emotional economic-collapse-as-natural-phenomenon Grapes of Wrath (1940) or even The Devil All the Time (2020), which also has Haley Bennett and pitilessly (i.e. compassionately) dissects the devastation caused by fundamentalist religion in American life.

So the Black Lives Matter street rallies and Proud Boy provocations all burst onto the television screens as a surprise, just as the irrational no-maskers in Switzerland seek to break the blind consensus on conformity that crowded living in apartment blocks imposes on their lives.

Reviews you may want to read

The Guy From Hillbilly Elegy Has Been Controversial Since 2016 — refinery29 — 24 November 2020
What Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy Adaptation Leaves Out — slate.com — 24 November 2020
Hillbilly Elegy, Starring Amy Adams and Glenn Close, Divides Critics as It Hits Netflix — source — 24 November 2020
Is It ‘Classist’ to Think ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ Is a Raging Dumpster Fire of a Movie? — thedailybeast — 24 November 2020
Hillbilly Elegy movie review: Amy Adams, Glenn Close offer little consolation in Netflix's neoliberal morality play — firstpost — 25 November 2020
Don't just laugh at "Hillbilly Elegy" — its damaging myths still need to be countered — salon — 25 November 2020
Why does Hillbilly Elegy feel so inauthentic and performative? — vox — 25 November 2020

"The movie is not good. Not only is it a surprising clunker to watch, it also fails to compensate for flaws in its source material (facile ideas about "hillbillies", a not-very-interesting protagonist) while introducing new problem of its own (baffling narrative structure, forehead-slapping dialogue, and plot devices)."

Ron Howard Can't Distance His Movie from the Unpersuasive Politics of 'Hillbilly Elegy' — lamag — 25 November 2020

"Hillbilly Elegy shows the tricky task for Hollywood in trying to surf the political zeitgeist in the age of Trump, where a divided American electorate and a working class that feels alienated from the American Dream defies easy analysis and where a book can seem to capture the spirit of the times one minute only to seem out of touch the next. Ron Howard got caught in a conundrum he couldn’t solve: The politics of the book are unpersuasive at best and possibly wrong at worst, but the story doesn’t work without those politics giving it a narrative backbone. Ironically, Howard probably would have made a better movie if he had been willing to make a controversial one. Sure some viewers would have disagreed with the message, but at least they would have something to disagree with instead of the anodyne offend-no-one-film that resulted."