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25 November 2020 04:30

J. D. Vance Ron Howard Glenn Close

Netflix's 'Hillbilly Elegy' turns my community's human anguish into Oscar bait

When J.D. Vance published his memoir, "Hillbilly Elegy," in June 2016, no one could have foreseen how Donald Trump's imminent electoral victory would propel him into the role of America's de facto "poverty whisperer." Now, it seems, Netflix has all but guaranteed that Vance will take his leave from the role much like the president himself — amid a chorus of repudiation. Tasked with bringing the wildly popular New York Times bestseller to life, director Ron Howard has amassed nearly every resource the film industry has to offer. Tasked with bringing the wildly popular New York Times bestseller to life, director Ron Howard has amassed nearly every resource the film industry has to offer: two of Hollywood's most beloved actresses, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter, the most pervasive media distributor on the planet and an audience held captive by the coronavirus and thirsting for fresh entertainment. While it may never be regarded as a cinematic marvel, "Hillbilly Elegy" stays true to the supposedly groundbreaking revelation that made Vance a bestselling author: that poor people should just try to be less poor. The Netflix movie stars Amy Adams as Bev, the drug- and marriage-addicted mother of the author (Gabriel Basso and Owen Asztalos as adult and young J.D., respectively), and it recounts Vance's evolution from working-class underachiever to Yale Law student with a bone to pick with his past.

Bev's addiction is at the forefront of the film, serving as the object of Vance's ire far more than the "welfare queens" the book homed in on. But while it is perhaps watered down to the point of near-palatability, Vance's thesis that American poverty is the direct consequence of individual moral decay, laziness and retreat from organized religion is still there, just slightly off screen. To that point, it simply is not possible to overstate the abruptness with which the 2016 election shifted the nation's focus toward the political power wielded by the rural working class, particularly those in the American oddity of Appalachia. "Hillbilly Elegy" and its convenient timing propelled the author to the top of the talking-head circuit. I have been unfortunate enough to witness firsthand the trauma Howard's film sought to depict: the emotional havoc wreaked by cycles of abuse, a local economy unable to keep pace with the modern world, the monthly calculation of which "necessities" to prioritize.

As it did Vance, the force of a few strong women drove me from a working-class family to an "elite" law school. These shared experiences make it obvious to me that Netflix's "Hillbilly Elegy" fails to communicate anything of real substance. This makes sense, because the author's intentions were not to bring the working class into the modern world, nor were they to explain to outsiders the pain felt by those seemingly left behind in a global economy. Instead, Vance conjured a story that emphasizes his loose connections to Appalachia through tales of cow thievery and lawlessness and glosses over the fact that, by his own account, he was raised (at least for part of his life) in a home with a six-figure income. In doing so, "Hillbilly Elegy" turned Vance into a household name by peddling his anecdotal accounts of welfare abuse or habitual unemployment to justify the idea that people are to blame for their own suffering.

Today, Howard's adaptation is a failure, but don't blame Glenn Close or Amy Adams. By following Vance's lead, Howard has turned a community's moral failings and human anguish into Oscar bait for those looking to find yet another reason to scoff at the working class. The movie is the obvious result of — perhaps well-intentioned — filmmakers who were so eager to tell the story of rural poverty that they never stopped to consider who was feeding it to them. Instead, we now have two hours of poverty porn that feel like just another way for J.D. Vance to cash in on the pain of a community he claims compassion for. On paper, Hillbilly Elegy sounded like it was in safe hands, with Oscar-winning director Ron Howard adapting a true-life story like he did to great effect in the likes of Rush, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind and more.

For the adaptation of JD Vance's divisive memoir of the same name, Howard enlisted the likes of Glenn Close and Amy Adams for key roles, adding to the idea that – on paper, again – here was a movie that would be in contention for awards. Hillbilly Elegy currently stands at 27% on Rotten Tomatoes from more than 100 reviews, so even though some critics have been kinder to it, it's definitely not the guaranteed Oscar contender Netflix might have hoped for. If you've not read the memoir it's based on, arrived shortly before Donald Trump won the presidency and was retrospectively seen as a potential examination of how Trump managed to win over the rural areas of the United States. But the controversy surrounding it – which you can read more about in this excellent Vulture piece – was that Vance's tale was an overly simplistic and right-wing view of Appalachia. His tale of how he managed to 'escape' Middletown, Ohio and make something of himself by going to Yale was seen by some as a message that you just needed to work hard to gain success.

Those hoping that Howard's take on Vance's memoir would come with more depth and nuance will be sorely disappointed. The biggest disappointment, though, is that the movie retains the overly simplistic message that all anyone living in poverty or living with an issue (be it addiction or otherwise) needs to do is work hard and they'll succeed. It's how Vance manages to finally break the cycle, get out of Ohio and make it to Yale. And all it takes is just a day spent back in Ohio for him slip back into the violent ways of his family, giving him a sign of what it could have been if he hadn't left because he worked hard. There's a lot of acting going on with a capital A, C, T, I, N and G from Amy Adams and Glenn Close, but even their talent can't flesh out stereotypes of hillbilly characters we've seen on screen before. If you happened to stumble on Hillbilly Elegy on Netflix during the movie (not sure how that'd work, but we'll go with it), you could be forgiven for thinking it was a comedy sketch of what an Oscar-bait movie would look like if it was set in rural America. The worrying thing is that – given everything about Hillbilly Elegy screams Oscar – there's every chance it could end up with nominations. Amy Adams and Glenn Close could both be in with a shot as they certainly give it their all and most of their scenes could effectively be an Oscar clip. Hillbilly Elegy is available to watch now on Netflix. This week, Netflix unveils Hillbilly Elegy, the latest movie in a series of Oscar hopefuls made available on the streaming service this year. After its limited theatrical run, Ron Howard's dramatic adaptation of J.D. Vance's best-selling 2016 memoir will finally become available worldwide, letting movie-lovers see the author's controversial life story for themselves. Starring Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Gabriel Basso, Haley Bennett, Freida Pinto, and Bo Hopkins, it's not hard to wonder why Netflix had lofty hopes for this potential awards contender. This is where you might recognize Hillbilly Elegy's cast. (CNN) "Hillbilly Elegy," J.D. Vance's 2016 memoir, won praise for its insight into the forgotten folk whose poverty and hopelessness prompted them to embrace Donald Trump as a political force. That sociology aspect is mostly lost in Netflix's dreary movie adaptation, which focuses on one family trapped in a circular pattern of dysfunction, and how the son escaped it. Although Vance is ostensibly the center of this story--played by Gabriel Basso as a Yale Law student, and Owen Asztalos as a teenager--the movie is understandably preoccupied with the key women in his life, his mother Bev (Amy Adams) and foul-mouthed grandmother Mamaw (Glenn Close). Yet that process is interrupted and complicated by Bev's latest overdose, forcing him to journey back to Ohio to help his sister (Haley Bennett) deal with mom, who might be the world's worst patient. An extensive series of flashbacks follow, revealing J.D.'s early years in Kentucky, the family's move to Ohio and Bev's litany of bad choices, from hooking up with the wrong guys to lashing out at her children, occasionally in violent fashion. Haley Bennett, Gabriel Basso and Amy Adams in 'Hillbilly Elegy' (Lacey Terrell/Netflix) At the same time, J.D. is frequently told family takes precedence over everything else, an argument presented most forcefully by Mamaw, who sees the potential in him as well as the need to intervene in order to put him on the right path. Even his colleague girlfriend, Usha (Frieda Pinto) exists in this movie only as his cheerleader, the kind of girl he can call when he needs to freak out about which fork to use at dinner, or to talk him through the long drive — as in hours! The fact that the film doesn't underscore the irony of a white man in America moaning to his second-generation Indian girlfriend, whose father immigrated with nothing and still managed to send his daughter to law school, about privilege is yet another glaring oversight. Yes, the odds are stacked against J.D. He's the first in his family to attend college, let alone law school, and has to work 10 times as hard as many of his peers, while working three jobs to pay for it all.