I’m not sure how or why they managed, but the people behind the movie version of “Hillbilly Elegy” have taken the regionalism out of J.D. Vance’s best-selling memoir and left behind a generic work of poverty porn. But I guess plain old “Elegy” doesn’t have the same ring.
Those people would be director Ron Howard, screenwriter Vanessa Taylor, and stars Amy Adams and Glenn Close, all respected film industry professionals essaying a look at an American underclass that I hazard they know none too well. The story of how Vance rose from rural penury to Yale Law, grappling with generations of family dysfunction and an addict mother, was in the book accompanied by a sociological long view of the Appalachian poor. For many, the book “explained” Trump’s America; for others — notably commentators who grew up in similar circumstances — it ignored too many larger economic and social factors to be taken seriously.
The movie, which to Netflix on Nov. 24, barely goes that far. Using as a framing device the return home of law student Vance (a sympathetic if stymied Gabriel Basso) to deal with his mother, Bev (Adams), in the wake of her latest overdose, “Hillbilly Elegy” shuttles the viewer back and forth in time, from J.D.’s traumatic upbringing to his current struggles. The actor playing the hero’s younger self, Owen Asztalos, is very good and has more to work with than Basso (and certainly more than Freida Pinto, who plays Vance’s worried fiancée back in New Haven).
Above all, the movie is a showcase for Adams and Close, the latter playing Vance’s grandmother Mamaw, to let their hair down (or perm it up, in Close’s case) and act with all stops out. Both performers are too talented to condescend to their roles and yet both performances feel like stunts, with Close’s physical transformation veering grimly close to caricature and Adams' messy outbursts an actor’s form of grandstanding. Might these roles be better, more effectively served by unfamiliar players? Perhaps, but Frances McDormand is thoroughly credible as a factory worker’s widow who turns to the van life in Chloe Zhao’s upcoming “Nomadland,” a much more convincing portrait of Americans falling through the cracks.
Worse, by neutering the specifics of where these people live and come from, Howard’s “Hillbilly Elegy” renders the story meaningless. Accents aside, the film could be taking place anywhere poverty and opioid addiction plague this country, and if “Elegy” is reasonably honest about the latter, there are real, systemic reasons the cycle continues the way it does in Kentucky and Middletown, Ohio, as opposed to elsewhere. Bev isn’t “poor white trash” just because her and Mamaw’s “pride” gets in the way. And plenty of people who grow up poor in the South have learned which fork to use or know the name of more than one white wine, both of which flummox law student Vance in an early scene.
But that’s the way “Hillbilly Elegy” portrays these people and the way a lot of viewers feel comfortable seeing them: As indomitable victims of their own lousy choices. The movie’s a neoliberal’s fantasy and a sociopolitical tract defanged. It will probably get nominated for a lot of awards.
Directed by Ron Howard. Written by Vanessa Taylor, based on the book by J.D. Vance. Starring Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Gabriel Basso, Owen Asztalos, Freida Pinto. Available on Netflix. 116 minutes. R (language throughout, drug content, some violence)