Directed by Ron Howard
Written by Vanessa Taylor (based on the book by J.D. Vance)
Hillbilly Elegy, based on the best-selling memoir/tirade by J.D. Vance, has emerged from streaming service/content pile Netflix at precisely the wrong moment in history—the only way it could be worse, I suppose, is if it had aired on Netflix three months ago, because if you think it gets folks' hackles up now—and inevitably, it has become one more referendum on whose stories get told when and by whom and in what manner. Given that I tend to consider such thinkpieces/clickbait articles to be more-or-less anathema to any kind of actual artistic criticism, maybe I could've been convinced that it was getting an unfair shake. Of course, that assumes Hillbilly Elegy is art in any of the stricter senses of the term, rather than the exploitation of what amounts to a brand name—a brand name more toxic now than when it was greenlit, presumably—culminating in an astoundingly perfunctory run at the kind of social drama miserablism that sometimes wins Oscars despite itself. (For the record, I only even watched it because my girlfriend wanted to have an opinion on it, and I'd already washed the dishes, taken out the garbage, emptied the litter boxes, and cleaned the ceiling fan.) So here's what's missing in the discourse around Hillbilly Elegy: it's a bad movie, full stop. Politics doesn't even have to enter into it.
Elegy is the story—in the denotative sense of the term if perhaps not the connotative one—of three generations of the Vance clan of Appalachia. Formerly of Kentucky, matriarch Mamaw (Glenn Close, whom I suddenly realize was never actually given a name) ran off years ago to southeastern Ohio, a distinction that barely seems to make much of a difference, and sometimes seems to have slipped off director Ron Howard and editor James D. Wilcox's radar entirely; and, in any event, as of 1997, when our tale begins, the Vances maintain significant ties across these state lines. Mamaw's flight from Kentucky coincided with her pregnancy at age thirteen. This resulted in her daughter Beverly Vance (Amy Adams), who demonstrated some incremental progress as she grew towards adulthood, by managing not to get herself knocked up until she was sixteen. In turn, this resulted in her fatherless children, daughter Lindsay (Jennifer Lawrence back-up body Haley Bennett), and a couple of years later, her son J.D. (Owen Asztalos as a child, and dubiously attempting to span his physicality across a very, very indeterminate stretch of childhood, roughly from ages twelve to sixteen).
A decade and a half later—in the spring of 2011—J.D. (now Gabriel Basso) has clawed his way out of the holler and all the way to Yale Law, all thanks to his grandmother having bought him a Texas Instruments graphing calculator and making him do his homework (I am only slightly exaggerating), all while his mother degenerated into an unemployed drug addict. J.D. has spent his adulthood attempting to put his checkered past behind him—enlisting in the Marines, getting out of Appalachia, going to Ohio State, getting a job in a kitchen as a dishwasher to help pay for law school what his financial aid didn't cover*, and even striking up a romance with fellow student Usha (Frieda Pinto), who, by definition, can't be white trash. Presently, he is hoping to land himself a summer internship at a good firm. Unfortunately, Bev has chosen this moment to get really bad, overdosing on heroin, and J.D. is obliged to make a fateful trip back home, nominally to take the burden off his sister, who responds to this unburdening by going with him to the hospital and to rehab and everywhere else, and continuing to be his scene partner throughout, despite the stated reasons he needed to come back.
That sounds mostly cohesive, probably—it doesn't sound especially fascinating, of course, but cohesive—and on the level of "plot," it is. On the level of trying to be a story, it absolutely is not, despite being as bog-standard a story as could possibly be told of any American human being of a certain class, probably not even all that limited to J.D.'s whiteness or maleness, even though these are at least implicitly-marked categories here. (It highlights an unpalatable truth about true stories: even accepting that this "all happened" for the sake of argument, true stories often come off phonier and more stereotypical than the made-up ones, because the made-up ones usually at least have some angle on how to make it interesting and unique besides "it occurred.") Vanessa Taylor, in adapting Vance's memoir, reportedly sanded off some edges and made some efforts to make it more narratively-congenial; it is almost invisible what those efforts might have entailed.
The most noticeable thing about Elegy, then, is that interleaved chronology, which is borderline dysfunctional but also probably necessary: it at least provides some kind of illusion that we are not basically watching the same scene play out over and over, usually with barely any elaboration, since instead it permits us to watch the same two scenes play out over and over without elaboration—Beverly is chaotic and abusive, while Mamaw is at least abusive in an orderly way; J.D. drives cars around New England and Appalachia, while seething with purposeless anger over his hick upbringing—and there's a certain point, not very far at all into the two hour runtime, where it runs into some serious diminishing returns. It is a movie almost entirely incapable of surprises, somewhat by definition. The only time it isn't is when it's insane—notably, the bit where a scene of spousal abuse escalates beyond all expectation, and a drunk gets set on fire, which at least has the merit of being startling. But besides getting numbingly repetitive (if you recut this movie in straight chronological order, it would be one of the worst things you ever saw), the story never exists as anything more than a collection of data points on a timeline, and crams whatever humanity there presumably must have been to the story of these three, y'know, humans into the tiniest possible boxes, labeled "flawed grandmother so ancient she's able to maintain virulent bigotry against other white ethnicities," "registered nurse who somehow, offscreen, became a complete fucking disaster," and "living Horatio Alger story who has perhaps mistaken late 20th century/early 21st century social safety nets for bootstraps."
So there is a question that I'm not sure Taylor or Howard could actually answer about Elegy, certainly not without saying "all of them," and that's, "who is the protagonist of this film?" If you asked Close or Adams, they would probably say "me," though they'd be wrong. (If you asked Basso, he could conceivably also answer "my character," but if he thinks he's demonstrating the screen presence to be the protagonist of anything, even scenes where he's by himself, he's delusional.) In the same way that Elegy illustrates problems with true stories, it illustrates the paradox of how the most specific stories can be the most universal, in the sense that Elegy has no universality because it's devoid of specificity in any respect. Mamaw and Bev benefit, a little, from technically-proficient acting from Close and Adams—certainly you could expect no less from either—though with both they're approaching the roles from the most obvious angles imaginable, and indeed to some degree both are approaching them as hardly anything more than a chassis for their respective makeup transformations. This is along the lines of "be hot, ugly up, win a statue" for Adams, which barely even works, and even beyond that there's the curiosity of a script that continually refers to Bev's intelligence (she was salutatorian of her high school), which is reflected in no way in either her strategies for dealing with the world as an addict, or even in Adams' dialect, except the one time she uses a three-syllable word. As for Close, at least in her case they came at her with the intent to make a creature, and I suppose this is enough to say that Close is the "winner" of the film.
But it really doesn't make a character, and Elegy is simply absent of such things—nothing besides anecdotes and not a blessed thing to link them together. I'm not certain it even attempts genuine insight: Bev is just any given episode of Intervention; Mamaw is pretty close to a rapping granny (her brief soliloquy about Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which I believe was supposed to have deep meaning, establishes mostly just that she likes Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and it's memorable mainly for violating the old rule about not mentioning a better movie in the middle of your bad one); and J.D., the one character this film should have insight into by default, is a personality-free blob at every stage of his development. This movie can't even make J.D.'s law school experience feel like anything besides a stagey, detail-free recreation; as for Appalachia, I don't know, the part I grew up in never felt so unrelentingly hostile or squalid as this one does. But I suppose that without those qualities, it can't justify its message modules, which are interspersed into some brazenly [INSERT THEMES ABOUT PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY HERE] lines of dialogue, also mostly delivered by Close. I can only assume that, in prose, Vance's prognosis of his culture comes off less artless, but the movie is surely at its very worst when it believes it has something important to say about Appalachia. Remarkably, there's even the bones of a story that is interesting here, but this story's about J.D. and Bev—about when a child has to walk away from the bonds of obligation and blood loyalty that tie them to even the shittiest parent—and there's no flesh on those bones, so when that moment arrives, since Basso hasn't had the slightest opportunity to bring us along with him emotionally thanks to the constant time-jumping, what we have is shockingly flat: a climactic moment that comes off more like a clunky robot finally figuring out a not-especially-complicated equation, rather than a person tearing his heart out.
Which leaves us with whatever the hell Howard thought he was doing with any of this, because it certainly wasn't imposing journeyman craft onto the thing, and while one never goes into Howard films expecting genuinely revelatory filmmaking or anything, one does expect some basic craft. (Less so, perhaps, since the mid-2010s, when he decided he was fine with really bad cinematography, which Maryse Alberti offers a great deal of here, with a lot of "aged" yellow color correction for the Kentucky sequences, which I'll remind you occur in 1997.) He and Wilcox make neither heads nor tails of Taylor's screenplay's structure, which is maybe the most damning thing—Elegy is just wrenching transitions from start to finish, except when they get up to some downright embarrassing match-cutting—and Howard doesn't manage his actors that well, since to the extent their characters ever change in the first place it happens in burpy, discontinuous jumps, leaving Adams most stranded of all so that even if she were trying to explicate Bev (and who knows, maybe she is), Howard leaves the actor who likely has the most screentime in his film playing nothing that ever amounts to anything beyond a marginal supporting role.
This doesn't even grapple with some individual choices: can God or anybody explain why, when young J.D. reluctantly gives his mom his urine for a drug test, Howard inserts a POV shot of J.D. hiding his wiener in his fist? Like, just to begin with, who pisses like that? (This is not my core objection.) Hillbilly Elegy is just lousy—it's often unintentionally funny, so it's got that going for it—but it is, in the main, an incredibly dull movie and pretty much an uninterrupted failure, freighted with pretensions toward explaining a whole culture, and unable to even explain just the three people it's actually about.
*Financial aid, J.D.? You fuckin' taker.