Hillbilly Elegy is a supercut of award-bait misery porn

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Hillbilly Elegy is a supercut of award-bait misery porn

I used to be an avid listener of National Public Radio’s This American Life — not much of a stretch, you’re going to say. Though it held its share of left-wing public radio clichés, I would not say that This American Life was necessarily a repetitive or predictable program from week to week.

After Donald Trump’s election, however, one particular type of story dominated: stories about America’s heartland and the Trump voters it contained. The idea, I think, was to bridge the gap of the unknowable and speak to all of the “coastal elites” who simply couldn’t believe that someone like Trump could be elected president. These stories were almost always about the hardships that shaped the lives of people who, because of these same hardships, found a kindred spirit in Trump and his political agenda. What began as a commendable attempt to hear the other side out soon became a worn-out cliché of turn-the-other-cheek liberalism as, time and time again, the show found “deplorables” with a tragic background and profiled them.

My point here is not that empathy should be reserved for people we agree with. The reasons why the program shifted that way are entirely understandable on paper, but they led to a swift and permanent calcification of that kind of story that automatically rendered most attempts at trying to understand “the other side” clichés.

JD Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy does not have its roots in the halting chapter titles of Ira Glass’s long-running radio program, but Ron Howard’s adaptation of Hillbilly Elegy does. It’s a well-meaning lefty filtration of an already problematic memoir — one that generated considerable controversy upon release — that chooses to excise the aspects of the book that caused the aforementioned controversy in order to get at the humanity of the story. Through whatever complex alchemical reaction engendered by the good-natured direction of one Ron Howard, this means one long series of dramatic freak-outs for the Oscar reel that barely hangs together in the long run.

I haven’t read JD Vance’s best-selling 2016 book, but from what I gather, Vance (who is now a suspicious venture capitalist suckling at the teat of Peter Thiel) courted controversy both by speaking for a group he wasn’t really a part of (more on that later) and by advocating for bootstrapping as a way out of poverty. The book is, apparently, much more overt in its judgment of the titular hillbillies, with Vance contrasting his own life (working in a grocery store to pay for college) with the “bad” decisions of people around him (customers at said grocery store paying with food stamps but also owning cellphones). 

Gabriel Basso (centre) in Hillbilly Elegy

Pretty much all of this has been excised from the film, leaving only the two parallel stories of tweenage JD (Owen Asztalos) and college-aged JD (Gabriel Basso) as he struggles with his life in a fractured family. JD Vance grows up not in the Appalachian country that so defines him, but in Middletown, Ohio, where his mother Bev (Amy Adams) works as a nurse between bouts of drug abuse and mental illness struggles. JD and his sister (Haley Bennett) have a pretty combative relationship with their mother, who often turns on them when they don’t expect it and can’t really be relied on; the responsibility of raising the children often falls to Mamaw (Glenn Close) and Papaw (Bo Hopkins), no-nonsense displaced hillbillies who are considerably stricter about their grandchildren’s day-to-day business. This is contrasted with JD in his 20s, struggling to get ahead at Yale Law School because of his background and confronted with the fact that his mother has relapsed once again on the eve of an important interview with a law firm.

By removing all of the book’s treatise on American socioeconomic status and the politics of bootstraps, the film version of Hillbilly Elegy has found itself with two fairly banal (if not uncompelling) coming-of-age stories that quickly get bogged down in histrionics. By running the two timelines against each other, Howard can therefore double up on the Oscar scenes of Close or Adams (or both) yelling up a storm. There are stretches of Hillbilly Elegy that are nothing but dramatic blowout after dramatic blowout, pitched at such a high level that it has made me question my past assessment that Xavier Dolan movies have, perhaps, too much yelling. There’s certainly an earnestness to the proceedings that grows out of the film becoming almost completely apolitical — it becomes purely a human interest story peopled with not entirely uninteresting humans, but barely enough to hang a movie on.

Hillbilly Elegy therefore seems like an unadorned ploy to get some Oscar heat on its two leads. (It’s no coincidence that both Close and Adams top the ranks of “I can’t believe they don’t have an Oscar” lists every year.) Close fares the best out of the two; though her heavily deglammed appearance suggests that the role might tilt towards the grotesque and farcical, she’s by far the most grounded character in the whole piece. Adams, on the other hand, is given too much of a lot to do; she has to freak the fuck out in nearly every one of her scenes, which has the effect of making even her best efforts feel one-note. In fact, much of Hillbilly Elegy is in the image of her performance: a droning collection of scenes pitched at nearly the same level throughout, with the only result being exhaustion and weariness. Almost none of Hillbilly Elegy is “normal” or “regular.” When there’s a quiet scene centered on love or support, it invariably comes as a direct reaction to something highly dramatic and emotionally fraught which may very well be the fourth scene of its type in a row.

There isn’t much that works about Hillbilly Elegy in the grand scheme of things. It seems clear that Vance’s Republican talking points were the glue that held the book together and that, without them, it’s just a catalogue of human misery sprinkled with the looming spectre of redemption via financial success. I don’t know that the explicitly partisan version of Hillbilly Elegy would necessarily work better (or at all, really) but it would at least give some kind of shape and purpose to what is essentially a supercut of misery porn. ■

Hillbilly Elegy is on Netflix as of Tuesday, Nov. 24. Watch the trailer here:

Glenn Close, Amy Adams and Gabriel Basso star in Hillbilly Elegy

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