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A lot of people are writing the same review of Hillbilly Elegy. They talk about how people on the left hate it because J. D. Vance, the author of the memoir the movie is based on and the central character in the film, is a conservative and how people on the right are finally glad someone is telling a story they can find the truth in. Entertainment Weekly, of all things, called it “fact-based.” You’d only need to say that if you felt the need to be defensive. Most people don’t feel the need to call someone’s life story “fact-based.”
There is a narrative that develops around anything political that gets poor reviews. It’s predictable: Hollywood critics hate it, people love it, the critical set is out of touch, Real America knows what’s best. I’m sure there are cases where that’s true and if you read enough reviews you read some crazy stuff. It’s easy to not be a part of the target audience for a movie or to just not connect with something and to rank something with redeeming qualities as a poor experience just because it isn’t for you.
That is not what’s happening here. Hillbilly Elegy is a messy, boring, frustrating exploration of one man’s experience that he’s turned into a political movement about how laziness and welfare are destroying America. It’s impossible to engage with it without engaging with the politics behind it, but it is entirely possible to love a piece of art you disagree with or to hate one that you think makes great points. If the last few years have taught us little else, it’s that your politics alone don’t make you worth people’s time. You have to have something interesting to say, whether your audience agrees with you or not.
The real J. D. Vance is tweeting conspiracy theories and truly ugly nonsense as I write this, but I checked in just to confirm what I expected might be true. He’s running for Senate in 2022 and he’s backed by billionaire super-villain Peter Thiel, famous for saying that freedom and democracy are not compatible and women’s rights and welfare are big reasons why. Vance worked for Thiel and became a celebrity among the political right when he published his memoir. Ron Howard directed it as a film, thus we have to engage with Oscar-nominated Hillbilly Elegy.
It’s easy to track how this happened, but harder to say why it happened. No one’s mind will be changed by this movie. The premise appears to be a typical American story, with a character literally telling Vance’s character in the film that he’s the American dream because he paid his way through college by joining the military and got out of the South and into high society. Vance initially rejects this statement with a big flourish about how the South and rural people are smart and capable and no one should shame them.
This is a cringeworthy scene, but it sets the table for who Vance is and what he believes. He then spends the entirety of the movie insistently walking away from this premise and behaving inconsistently with it. It establishes the film’s desire to have it both ways and to play loosely with the point behind the memoir when it doesn’t work for the performance. You have to bend reality to make it make sense, so they bend it. Vance’s book is designed to make an argument about poverty, but the film is designed to show it off as a contrast to what you might accomplish if you don’t live like this.
I knew I wasn’t going to like this, but I really tried. I’m from the South, but not this part, and I moved away, but not to that part. My life is not very much like Vance’s and my childhood was not much like his, but I am familiar enough with the experience to see parts that ring true and parts that ring false. One moment that’s intended to be endearing is when Vance finally lets his guard down towards the end of the story and lets his girlfriend in on his experience. He says “syrup” when they’re making pancakes and she makes fun of his accent. It’s meant to be a charming scene, but it’s about ten minutes before the story is over. The effect is to suggest that who Vance becomes after this story, after he goes home and sees that things are even worse than he remembers, is someone who can laugh at himself.
This is my major issue with Hillbilly Elegy. The premise is a mean one, arguably cruel, and it’s delivered in a way no one should find sweet. Amy Adams plays his mother and is intended to show us the cycle of addiction and how opiates can lead someone to dark places. The reality, we learn more every day, is that this cycle is destructive and isn’t generally people who get high for fun and want to shirk responsibilities. There’s a darker version of this story, but Vance wasn’t interested in that argument and Howard’s film isn’t, either. You can argue that it’s all “fact-based” and whatever Vance’s mom does in the movie is what she did in real life, but this is where it matters if this is one man’s opinion or a larger story about the Southern or rural experience.
Adams does what the script asks of her, but it asks her to be a cartoonish villain. We mostly see her in flailing desperation and see her lows played for drama, but it’s so continuous and so repetitive that it becomes cyclical. Vance has to leave a big interview with a law firm because he has to go back to the country and take care of his mother. She has relapsed and only his presence can save her. We see him go to great lengths, all to his credit, but he just can’t get her the help she needs because she doesn’t want help.
There’s an opportunity here to make a few different, competing statements. Adams’ character could be a statement about how you fall into addiction and your life is impacted and stops being yours. Vance, again, is not interested in that argument, so it’s instead a statement about how family can hold you back if you fall into their negativity. I won’t rob the movie of what little surprise it has, but a line delivery between Gabriel Basso, who plays Vance, and Adams during the climax shocked me. I expected this to trigger a larger argument and her final, destructive move, but it doesn’t. It’s a horrific, terrible moment, but in the world of Hillbilly Elegy, that’s actually the moral.
Vance then experiences a great life. Everyone else is okay, we learn through 1980s-style credits that show where everyone is today, but Vance specifically, his life rules. It’s all because he had the strength to pull himself up by his bootstraps and do the work. Heroin is just pain leaving the body or whatever, just tough it out. It’s such a bizarre message and such a strange way to deliver it that I still kinda can’t believe it’s the centerpiece of the story.
Along the way, Vance is taken in by his grandmother, played by Glenn Close. Close is up for an Oscar for this and I really hope she doesn’t win it, entirely because of the rest of the movie. Youn Yuh-jung in Minari is nominated for a very similar role and a much more interesting one, but given the history of the Oscars you have to expect Close is the favorite. Beyond the “critics hate it; they don’t get it” narrative, there’s also an argument that Close is excellent in Hillbilly Elegy even if the movie stinks. She does a great job, it’s impossible to argue with that, but there are so many impossibly ridiculous moments that it isn’t enough to overcome the script.
I would not believe it if someone else told me this, but I am telling you that one of her moral lessons to a young J. D. Vance is that everyone is a “good Terminator,” a “bad Terminator,” or a “neutral Terminator.” I could not contextualize that for you if I tried. She exerts tough love over her grandson and does have an honest moment that I really liked where she tells him that it’s about working hard and getting lucky. We don’t spend a lot of time on this lesson, probably because it refutes Vance’s premise that anyone who doesn’t make it out of poverty or addiction does so because they’re lazy.
Howard’s direction puts his typical positive vibe on this and the film keeps veering into brief lessons. A teacher tells Vance he’s too smart to get bad grades. His grandmother tells him his friends are all a bad crowd. None of these are very interesting, but they show why Howard found his story worth telling. Maybe he didn’t care about the politics behind it and maybe he did, but Vance’s muddled, one-point-plan of “just work hard, if you fail it’s because you didn’t work hard or because of The Government but also don’t blame The Government” shines through everyone’s fake accents and aww-shucks jokes.
Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Mank is similarly dour, but suggests that not trying is a good way to avoid having to find out if you can make it or not. There’s a lot more cynicism in Mank but also a lot more story to tell. I think Mank is more worthy of your two hours and more likely to cause you to think about how people treat each other, even though Hillbilly Elegy is more expressly going for that.
Is it the best movie of all time? No, and I think it’s the worst movie we’ve looked at so far in this series. It’s just not the most interesting version of this story. I would be most interested in a version where Vance isn’t so much of a clean-cut hero, though. It’s rare to see a person whose central trait is ambition played this way because that’s not how most of us think of ambition. There is a story to tell here, but you’d need Vance to not be the one telling it.
You can watch Hillbilly Elegy on Netflix. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.