Inherited trauma is a powerful force, underacknowledged in the cycle of poverty. In Hillbilly Elegy, Ron Howard’s adaptation of JD Vance’s memoir new on Netflix, it also makes for repetitive viewing. Amy Adams (as JD’s mom) does drugs and throws things, shattering JD’s chill as grandma (Glenn Close) tries to intervene. Over and over it goes, and no one really learns anything. Eventually JD goes to Yale Law School. Hooray?
Visually, Ron Howard has done a hell of a job. The trailer was rightly clowned when it was first released, for being the epitome of glamorous movie actors vamping around in poverty face. Certainly, Hillbilly Elegy isn’t the first movie ever to trace its awards chances to how tacky and ugly it can make its beautiful, fashionable stars. But that’s why it’s easy to ridicule — it’s probably the thousandth. Obvious tacky-face has itself become tacky. Nonetheless, Howard kept receipts. As the credits roll, he juxtaposes shots of his actors next to the real-life Vance family they’ve been portraying (has this ever been done before??), as if to say “See?? They look just like ’em!”
And they do. Gabriel Basso as Yale-aged Vance also looks uncannily like a grown-up version of Owen Asztalos as the young Vance, whose ’80s haircuts make him look like he has an abnormally large skull. Maryse Alberti’s gorgeous cinematography makes the hollers of hill country look as idyllic as Vance remembers them.
Yet Hillbilly Elegy is an accidental master class in why a series of facts don’t automatically make a story. We get the present-day(ish) Vance, trying to prepare for his clerking interviews and relate to his new milieu at Yale, while his drug-addled mom does everything she can to screw it up for him. We see the chip on JD’s shoulder when a law school colleague casually refers to his home townspeople as “rednecks” and JD throws a fit. An explanation of why he recoils at “redneck” when he has “hillbilly” in the title of his memoir would’ve been helpful here, but okay. He has to call his girlfriend Usha (Freida Pinto) to ask her what forks and knives to use during a fancy law school dinner so that he doesn’t embarrass himself in front of the law people. Gaw-lee, this is one fish WAY out of water!
Incidentally, it’s very strange that an avowed movie lover like JD, who bonds with his Meemaw by watching 80s movies on VHS over and over, hadn’t already intuited some of this fork knowledge through cinema. I feel like I’ve seen it in 10 other movies. It seems more likely that he usurped a movie trope for his supposed life story, a realization that throws cold water on everything else he relates.
Interspersed in the present storyline are flashbacks to JD’s childhood, explaining how he got to be this way. Mostly they consist of his mom being an addled, flighty, unreliable nightmare while little JD has to cover for her and Meemaw tisks in the background. Occasionally Meemaw tisks a little too loudly and Mom spins on her heels to remind her that this was all! Her! Fault! I learned it by watching you, mom!
Missing in this whole Hilldog Yale-lionaire dual storyline is what lessons JD’s childhood tried to inculcate and how and why he outgrew them. Netflix’s other hill-country release this year, The Devil All The Time (a far better movie) makes an interesting comparison. In both, there’s a scene in which a family member tries to instill in the young protagonist the lesson, “Never start a fight, but always finish one.”
It’s hard to think of a more destructive value to instill in a child than the need for petty vengeance (and ironic coming from avowed turn-the-other-cheek Christians) but it’s a useful point of comparison since both movies repeat it basically verbatim. In The Devil All The Time, the adage quickly leads to a child forced to watch his father unleash unspeakable mayhem — which is not only compelling to watch, but instructive in terms of how this worldview affects the immediate environment and future generations. In Hillbilly Elegy, young JD Vance, after some boys hold his head under the water at the local swimmin’ hole, charges against unwinnable odds, bloodying his lip before he gets bailed out by family members in a “fight” worthy of an after-school special.
Aside from the general lameness and low stakes of the Hillbilly Elegy version, the takeaway has shifted. Rather than come away thinking “Gee, endless retaliation might be destructive for myself and the people around me,” young JD learns, curiously “it’s good to be around family.”
To deepen the irony, older JD Vance later regales his dinner companions with the story of how he was descended from the guy who started the famous Hatfield-McCoy feud. Now, I’d like to believe that including the Hatfield-McCoy bit means Ron Howard (and/or JD Vance) were conscious of young JD learning the wrong lesson from the swimming hole fight, but in the context of the rest of the film it doesn’t really seem like they do. It’s hard to engage with a memoir in which the storyteller is simultaneously trying to school us on “the real world” while missing what seems like the obvious point to half their stories.
Throughout the film, the family whispers that what Bev (Amy Adam) is putting the family through now is child’s play compared to what Meemaw put Bev through during her own childhood. We get a few tantalizing glimpses of this — like Meemaw lighting her drunk husband on fire after he passes out in a stupor — but mostly we just get Bev being a nightmare over and over, which is the dullest kind of hillbilly dysfunction. I’m sure having an addict for a mother is dull and repetitive in real life, but the realism of it doesn’t add insight.
The bigger issue is that Hillbilly Elegy‘s redemptive arc can’t justify it. In a movie about PTSD and inherited trauma, JD Vance breaks the cycle by… studying real hard and ditching his burnout friends. Hmm, did a vice-principal write this? But hey, who doesn’t love a good book-reading montage, right? It isn’t exactly blinding insight. Moreover, at a time that’s already given us a brilliant hillbilly noir (The Devil All The Time) and an enduring depiction of inherited trauma (Honey Boy), Hillbilly Elegy isn’t bringing much to the table other than big names.