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'Hillbilly Elegy' Says More About Hollywood Than It Does About Hillbillies

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DOLLAR-STORE DIVAS Close and Adams play the family J.D. Vance left behind in Howard's adaptation of his memoir. - LACEY TERRELL/NETFLIX
  • Lacey Terrell/netflix
  • DOLLAR-STORE DIVAS Close and Adams play the family J.D. Vance left behind in Howard's adaptation of his memoir.

Our streaming entertainment options are overwhelming — and not always easy to sort through. This week, I watched Ron Howard's star-studded adaptation of J.D. Vance's best-selling 2016 book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Released last week on Netflix, it's currently in the streamer's top 10.

The deal

J.D. Vance (played as a kid by Owen Asztalos) is the offspring of a fiercely loyal Appalachian hill clan. His grandparents moved to the industrial town of Middletown, Ohio, in search of opportunity, but as the decades passed, the factories closed. Now J.D.'s Mamaw (Glenn Close) struggles to make ends meet, while his single mom, Bev (Amy Adams), hops from one job and boyfriend to the next, developing an opioid addiction along the way.

Years later, the adult J.D. (Gabriel Basso) attends Yale Law School and has a girlfriend (Freida Pinto) who makes awkward concern-faces when he tells her about his family's troubles. Paying his tuition for the coming year depends on a single interview, but back in Ohio, his mom has just OD'd. Rushing to her side, J.D. must decide whether his future is worth putting on the line for a loved one who appears to be her own worst enemy.

Will you like it?

Pretty much every review of Hillbilly Elegy mentions that when Vance's memoir was published in 2016, media commentators seized on it as the key to "explaining" Donald Trump voters. But the resulting debates are tangential to the movie, which doesn't come across as timely or provocative or, really, as anything much besides syrupy Oscar bait.

In Howard's hands, this is a standard take on the time-honored story of a poor boy made good who must come to terms with the people he left behind. Its main distinction is the novelty of A-list stars playing the kind of women who generally pore over celebrity rags in the checkout line rather than appear in their pages.

Close and Adams are indeed convincingly de-glammed, and they act up a storm — some would say a perfect storm of camp — as the tough-talkin', cigarette-chompin' Mamaw and the scene-making, self-destructive Bev, respectively. The rest of the film serves as a tasteful frame for these over-the-top performances — including the whole character of J.D. He seems to function partly as viewer surrogate, wincing primly at his family's bad behavior.

Neither J.D.'s own brief bad-boy stage nor his supposed deep, dysfunctional connection to his mom come across as organic aspects of his character. Perhaps that's because of the film's unwieldy dual-narrative structure, which alternates between scenes of J.D.'s childhood and adolescence and ones of his adulthood. The parallels never clearly emerge.

Or perhaps the problem is Vanessa Taylor's screenplay, which keeps the characters at the level of stereotype. Bev can't seem to go anywhere or do anything without lurching off into the realm of chaos, but why is she so full of rage? A single flashback to violence in her childhood, played for lurid thrills, doesn't do much to illuminate the character. No one in the movie ever mentions mental illness, as if "hillbillies" had no acquaintance with such concepts.

Watching the movie, you might also think that no one in the audience is expected to have an everyday acquaintance with people who look or talk like Bev and Mamaw. They're presented to us like figures in a museum diorama, unsung Americans to be elegized for their pride and toughness and pitied for their failure to adapt to modern life.

To this resident of a rural state, that kid-gloves approach just seems weird. If movies are going to depict the reality of class in America — and they should! — then they need to acknowledge that "hillbillies" live in the same dynamic, ever-changing world as so-called "elites," and that there are plenty of gradations in between.

If you like this, try...

Frozen River (2008, rentable): Shot in the Plattsburgh, N.Y., area, Courtney Hunt's indie drama about a low-income mom who turns to cross-border smuggling to make ends meet gave Melissa Leo the role of a lifetime. Unlike Adams' Bev, her angry character feels lived-in and real.

Winter's Bone (2010; Kanopy, Cinemax, rentable): Jennifer Lawrence was arguably at her best as an Ozarks teenager supporting her younger siblings and searching for her disreputable dad in this drama that doesn't condescend to its "hillbilly" characters.

The Florida Project (2017; Netflix, rentable): Sean Baker's drama about a 6-year-old girl and her unstable mom living in a seedy Orlando motel dares viewers to condemn its characters as the "undeserving" poor. Whether you judge them or not, their vitality comes through loud and clear.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Hillbilly Elegy"