Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Director in Crisis

The cinematic literature of the midwest has atrophied. There are not many modern letters of the cinema with anything good to say about Appalachia — our present images, compromised of the Coastal Elites looking down their noses at the heartland of the country, ought to be dispiriting for anyone who lives there. American cinema has never been more inclusive. There has never been a greater plurality of voices. It seems self-evident however, that they are all saying the same thing, from a different lived experience. We have left out the middle of the country; the thumping heart of our agriculture, the once proud land of the American automobile, its cinematic image as withered as the prospects of its reentrance on the national stage, as a key player with something to say for the moment.

Hillbilly Elegy. Dir. Ron Howard.

The most pressing issue of middle America, and so, of all of America, is its drug crisis. We have turned our back, because America has always turned its back on the suffering culture of drugs. During election week, we saw the first steps forward on the War on Drugs — legalization sat at the turning point of one of our history’s most boldly significant elections. There is so much more work to do. One major piece is to create healing in the middle of America. There is hard work ahead, dealing with a part of the country — practically living in a country of their own designed reality — where the news and facts are the enemy, where they have gone out of their way historically to denigrate communities where drug abuse is a mounting systemic pressure. And now that the issue has turned inwards, with the opiate crisis, the most pressing drug crisis in our country’s history, will they be willing to help themselves?

J.D. Vance’s astonishing Hillbilly Elegy arrived during the last election. Rarely has an American work so perceptively met its own culture at an impasse. It’s most astonishing, because the writing predicates a Trump victory and was fully formed once we received the results, a psychological profile of a culture in grave pain, when the rest of the country desperately needed to understand why. It achieves these goals broadly. It is also a significantly problematic book, moralizing with a nationalistic, right-wing viewpoint, that old American axiom, that we must pull ourselves up by our bootstraps to persevere through the great tragedy of our self-imposed systemic issues. There is obviously so much more to each of the problems it presents. The good news is that the rest of the book is the most quintessential of American documents. It traces Vance’s family history and the character of his grandmother, the DNA of Middle America. Hillbilly Elegy is America, in all its divisive, harmful, and homespun anecdotal rhetoric. It’s also my favorite book of the last decade, for every positive and negative reason that it soared off the shelves, it resounded so deeply with my own history, my disassociation with once living in middle America, my want to moralize, and find the easy answers. It is a problematic and troubled book but is deeply honest and vitally important.

Hillbilly Elegy. Dir. Ron Howard.

Anyone adapting the book is damned by the task. When the task went to Ron Howard, it felt like all but an impossibility, that the vitality and socioeconomic reading would be maintained. In another way, it felt like an interesting inversion. The liberal elites would take one of the few academically provocative conservative works and reshape it to a more morally grounded and socially beneficial message. And so they did. Ron Howard’s adaptation, then, follows this principle: gutted from the book are all the passages of moralizing, the dutiful conservative slant of it all. Instead, it replaces those passages with the anecdotal subtext: it tells half the story, the biography of J.D. Vance, which is still a good story about the people of Appalachia but sucks out some of its purposeful explaining of why these people have done what they have done, which is still worth finding out in an election where Trump received an outsized number of votes for his bad record.

Now, the text is a little different; no longer a primary text, certainly. From a different perspective, watching actors play out Vance’s family, it can feel cathartic at best, and purposeless at worst. Read the book anyway, is this critic’s takeaway. Your favorite actors will not replicate the truth of Vance’s family memories. It ends up with the same conclusions, besides. If we work hard enough, a subset of our culture believes, we can overcome any hardship. Howard lays bare the thinest of readings and allows good actors to cook, accomplishing screen-worthy performances.

Hillbilly Elegy. Dir. Ron Howard.

Do not trust only the promotional posters. Yes, Amy Adams and Glenn Close look silly in their rural cosplay. In their overalls and oversized shirts, they say, this reads like a parody. This is our penance, for Amy Adams not winning any of her six Oscar nominations, or Glenn Close any of her seven. Both overdue, it’s a one-two punch that exists for one, or both, to finally get their gold. And that’s the long and short of it, the rare Hollywood movie for the Midwest, existing as Oscars bait. Both are good, because they always are, but not as any clear result of the adaptation or casting being relevant to their own powers. They have both done significantly better work and been overlooked for it, so we have to wait and see if such a strategy holds water anyway.

Everything about Hillbilly Elegy is as workmanlike and blue collar as its subjects. Late career Ron Howard creates the most unsurprising of documents. It’s exactly what you think it is, every last note of it. Even the Hans Zimmer and David Fleming scores play as the flattest of their careers. There could be few critical notes, in particular, because every part is substantially fine. It’s as common and basic as they come, but still crowd-pleasing and resoundingly American enough for odds at the awards shows. It will not be anyone’s favorite movie, but in a Green Book Academy, that votes by preferential ballots, it may be just what America ordered. After-all, it’s just another voting system, just as flawed and outwardly confusing as our Electoral College.


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