“Hillbilly Elegy” (which drops Tuesday on Netflix) provides yet more evidence that, when it comes to genres that confine rather than unleash cinematic creativity, superhero movies and other franchises have nothing on adaptations of memoirs by living public figures. The director’s imagination is restricted by the blueprint set forth by the author-slash-protagonist—who is also available to complain, even publicly, about departures from the printed record. The result, often, is movies that are devoid of moral complexity, psychological depth, and social purview. In “Hillbilly Elegy”, which is directed by Ron Howard and based on the best-selling memoir by J. D. Vance, the gap between artistic imagination and informational dosing is even more apparent than in other recent examples of the genre (such as “Just Mercy,” which is nonetheless a far better film)—and, peculiarly, the thinness of the adaptation arises not only from where the movie doesn’t go beyond the book but also from what, of its source material, it chooses to leave out.
The movie is framed in flashbacks, starting in the past but apostrophized by the voice-over reminiscences of the character J.D. (played, as an adult, by Gabriel Basso), who explains that he has lived most of his life in Ohio but has his roots, and his pleasures, deep in his ancestral hill country of Jackson, Kentucky, where he spent his joyful childhood summers. There, he’s seen as a soft and chubby child of about ten (played at that age by Owen Asztalos), pedalling to his cherished swimming hole, where his reverie—floating on his back in the lambent sunlight—is interrupted by a trio of older, more muscular boys who dunk him and hold him terrifyingly underwater. On shore, one of them makes a sexual remark about J.D.’s mother; he charges them and gets punched out—but, at that moment, three men from his family intervene (confirming J.D.’s warm voice-over reminiscence about his family having his back), rescuing him and beating up one of his tormentors. The men then bring him back to the house, which is being packed up: the family is returning home to Ohio, and young J.D. bewilderedly asks his grandmother, called Mamaw (and played by Glenn Close), why she ever moved away from that wonderful place. Her daughter, J.D.’s mother Bev (Amy Adams), gives the answer: “Because when you’re knocked up at thirteen, you get the hell out of Dodge, that’s why.”
That’s the opening sequence of “Hillbilly Elegy,” putting J.D.’s memory, his homeland, and his very sense of identity under the aegis of sex and violence—of male violence and female sexuality. These notions stand symbolically like silent sentinels throughout the film to suggest the raw, rough, dangerous world that formed J.D. and that he carries with him, unexpressed, wherever he goes. Bearing the imprint of these fierce attachments to clan and barely repressible passions, he is treated like a virtual savage in the world in which he, in the movie’s present tense, attempts to make his way: the world of Yale Law School and the corporate law firms at which he’s competing for work as a summer intern. They make him stand out—and the movie shows how J.D.’s crude energies get domesticated and channelled productively.
Howard puts the competition for an internship, strangely, at the center of the action. On the verge of an interview for a prestigious and well-paying gig (which J.D. needs because his financial-aid package has been reduced, leaving him with a heavy financial burden), the protagonist is summoned home by his sister, Lindsay (Haley Bennett), a harried mother of three who works in a shoe store, because their mother, Bev, has been rushed to the hospital with a heroin overdose. So J.D. drives from New Haven, Connecticut, to Middletown, Ohio, in one long night, with the prospect of an interview a few days later hanging over his head; the premise of the movie becomes a tick-tock thriller, in which he must arrange Bev’s care in time for his departure, at an hour early enough for him to make the ten-hour overnight drive and arrive in time for his appointment.
The parts of the drama fit together like a Rube Goldberg machine in order to show how J.D.’s immediate problems can be traced to their primal causes. Bev, we learn, had been her high-school salutatorian, and made a good start after graduation as a nurse at the local hospital. But, after her father died, she began abusing prescription medicine from her job, which made her act erratically. She put on a colleague’s roller skates in the locker room and skated through the I.C.U., which got her fired. This started her on the downward spiral that culminates in the overdose, which threatens J.D.’s summer plans and, by implication, his law-school studies and, thus, his entire life. Yet Bev’s inability to stay on the right track and care for herself and her family is, in turn, ascribed to her own rough childhood—her father’s habitual drunkenness and the violence that she witnessed as a result, when Papaw hit Mamaw, who, in turn, set him afire with a match.
The movie intersperses J.D.’s hurried effort to get Bev into rehab with flashbacks to his troubles during his teen years: the violent conflicts with Bev that he endured, and the instability of his home life with her as a result of her unstable relationships with men. In a matched set of flashbacks, Bev’s boyfriend Matt (Jesse C. Boyd), a cop, gets J.D. and Lindsay a dog—but Bev dumps that boyfriend for her boss, Ken (Keong Sim), whom she marries impulsively. Ken has allergies and forces the children to get rid of the dog. A lax parent, he lets his skater son, Travis (Morgan Gao)—with whom J.D. now bunks—slack off. Ken has a “Casino” poster in his living room, which positions him as more culturally sophisticated; he grows his own marijuana at home, and Travis smokes it. Bev’s relationship with Ken is, in effect, the intrusion of élite liberal culture into the Vances’ displaced-hillbilly way of life, and a marker of its alienation from American society at large.
This view of Appalachian alienation in action is made clearer by the movie’s depiction of J.D. and his family as having no cultural attachment whatsoever. The TV is often on in the house—young J.D. likes to watch the political news but never has a word to say about it—and Bev is briefly seen sharing an enthusiasm for football with J.D. Otherwise, J.D.’s family members are blank repositories of trouble, frustration, and striving. Even Mamaw, though gloriously profane and cantankerous, is devoid of any ideas that don’t cut to the practicalities that she tackles with blunt force and ferocious familial devotion. Miserable and confused by the new life with Ken and Travis that Bev has forced him into, J.D. neglects his studies, acts out, risks serious trouble, and is wrenched from that household by Mamaw, who takes him in and administers tough love. The crucial scene in the film is one that takes place in a car, when J.D. and Mamaw have a fierce argument. In the course of it, she sharply lectures young J.D. about the mighty exertions of study and discipline that it will take for him to “be somebody,” and about her reason for putting the hard work into raising him: “Who’s gonna take care of this family when I’m gone?” It’s exemplary of the film that this is Mamaw’s great aria; she has nothing to say about anything else.
Neither does J.D., for that matter. After high school, he joins the Marines and serves in Iraq, but that experience doesn’t figure into the movie at all—he says nothing about them in the course of the film. He doesn’t mention whatever culture shock he must have experienced at Yale (instead, it is portrayed in a pat scene near the start of the film, where, at a dinner with prospective employers, one refers to his family and neighbors as “rednecks”). This silence is worse than a cop-out; it’s an insult, one that’s all too typical of movies that depict poor or working people and presume that, because they lack education, they lack ideas, inclinations, a fund of experiences to discuss. The characters in “Hillbilly Elegy” aren’t literally silent; the director, Ron Howard, and the screenwriter, Vanessa Taylor, are more discerning than that. Rather, the characters are talkative about their immediate efforts—and their harshly florid style of speech is quaint and piquant—but they’re silent about whatever they may be thinking about beyond the matters at hand. They’re reduced not to their life stories but to the dramatic specifics of the movie. Beyond that, they simply don’t exist.
Yet, paradoxically, this cultural blankness, this reductiveness, isn’t just an error of omission on Howard’s part; it plays like a calculated aspect of the drama—and, even more strangely, like a positive trait, a mark of authenticity. The film’s stagings, images, and tones are as formless and as vague as its characters’ mental lives, and that vagueness replaces elements of Vance’s book which are politically and ideologically quite explicit—and which have been criticized for the simplistic lessons that they extract from his experience. In his book, Vance hectors poor Americans like his family members about lack of thrift and lack of discipline (“We spend our way into the poorhouse. . . . Our homes are a chaotic mess. . . . We don’t study as children, and we don’t make our kids study when we’re parents”) and, detailing a litany of destructive behavior in his community, concludes, “Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us. . . . We created them, and only we can fix them.” Howard’s movie doesn’t include a single line of such ideological advocacy—it doesn’t suggest that the character of J.D. has any political thoughts at all. Yet, through its very suppression of political ideas or concerns, it evinces the same politically regressive ideas at the core of Vance’s memoir.
There is a single line, in a subplot of the movie, that suggests precisely the political maneuver that the film’s aesthetic and dramatic texturelessness is meant to pull off. It involves J.D.’s law-school girlfriend, Usha (Freida Pinto). The couple have a warm and close relationship, yet J.D. has been reticent about his family background, and it’s only his bout of trouble back home that spurs him to open up about it. When he speaks of his grandparents’ migration from hill country to Ohio in search of work, Usha likens it to her father’s experience as an immigrant, who, she says, came to the United States “with nothing; he had to just find his way.” This is all that “Hillbilly Elegy” has to say about Usha’s father, but her comment about him reverberates through the film’s portrayal of J.D.’s family. The movie’s vision of America is one of “nothing” except self-interest and self-improvement; it’s one in which the only reach beyond the self is the one that embraces family, in which pleasure is a distraction and a danger, and culture is a fraud and a lure. With his soupy, impersonal manipulations of memory and experience, void of the burrs that attach them to the world at large, Howard, whether intentionally or not, has made a libertarian’s fantasy.