Ron Howard’s ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ Hits All The Wrong Tones Right Now

On the day I watched the screener for Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy, the real life version of the protagonist of this movie, J.D. Vance, tweeted some weird thing about fertility rates and daylight savings time. For the life of me, I still can’t figure it out. But I kept staring at it, thinking to myself, why on earth is there a whole movie about this guy coming out? Look, I know people who love his book, which the film is based on. Honestly, I suspect I’d like it, too. And I was at least open to the whole idea, I suppose: the guy who came from modest roots, went to Yale Law School, and became a national pundit. That’s not nothing. I speak from experience that it is difficult to get out of these Midwestern/Southern small towns. But is this enough for a movie? No, it is not enough for a movie.

Yeah, I know, “Um, east coast media lib doesn’t like the Hillbilly movie.” I have no doubt I’ll get some of those accusations thrown my way on social media. (By the way, I’m from Missouri.) Remember, a huge talking point about this movie is, well, we need to figure out why Trump won in 2016. But I’m so over it at this point. I watched this movie before the election. I’m writing this after Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 election. Under both circumstances, my reaction to this movie is, “I am not in the mood.” A big part of the film centers around Vance being the first person in his family to go to college. It’s a point of pride for him. And that’s great. Seriously. But my dad told me the same thing about his side of the family when I went to college. I remember my reaction was, “Oh, that’s weird.” And by the time I moved to New York City, at no point did I think it warranted a Ron Howard movie about my life. At most, it warranted a Blogspot blog. And even that’s up for debate. Now, to be fair, I’d certainly agree to a Ron Howard movie about my life. So, I certainly don’t begrudge Vance for this movie existing. But I certainly wouldn’t expect anyone to find it interesting.

The film crisscrosses back and forth from Vance’s time in law school (played by Gabriel Basso) and as a teen (Owen Asztalos) in Kentucky and Ohio, as both versions deal with his mother (Amy Adams), suffering from addiction and her relationship with her mother (Glenn Close). It’s a sad struggle to watch, but will be familiar probably to anyone who spent any time at all in small-town America in that region. Vance’s story doesn’t feel particularly unique, which does amplify the sad state of affairs people feel right now.

But the problem here is, from what I know about the book, it goes into the history of this region and explains why things are going the way they are. The film bypasses all this and just focuses on Vance’s family, which, at times comes off really tone-deaf. There’s a scene when younger J.D. spends some free time with his buddies demolishing a hardware store in the middle of the night. They are caught by the police, but it smash-cuts to the next day with some sort of explanation that J.D. could have gone to jail if it had not been for someone being there that did something or another to save them. Yeah, if there’s ever a point to be made about white people getting away with stuff others wouldn’t, without even realizing it, well this movie sure accomplishes that.

It’s hard to figure out who this movie is for. Adams and Close are, of course, very good in their respective roles. And there are a few moments that hit home with me: like the snobby guy at Yale Law School who asks J.D. where he went to undergrad, then when he answered Ohio State, it was casually dismissed as a “state school.” (This actually happens a lot. When I mention to Ivy League people I went to the University of Missouri, I get a lot of that, “There are many fine state schools,” thing. I try to do my best and not point out that in a lot of cases I have the same level job as that person, only without the massive amount of debt. But okay!) But then I remember J.D. is actually at Yale, so why should he care? And Ohio State is a terrific school. These are all dumb slights and don’t really matter anyway. And if it feels like I’m struggling to come up with specific plot details to discuss here, you would be correct. The whole movie is just J.D. getting upset with his mom, for pretty valid reasons, and how that might derail his future.

And look, I’ve lived in New York for 16 years now, but it’s pretty obvious from that last paragraph I have some pent-up emotions, still feeling like I have something to prove because of where I come from and the micro-slights over the years. Yeah, I totally get it. And, no, I don’t think the media really understands what goes on in middle America. And, yes, I think they should try to understand. But there’s a difference between that, empathizing with someone who is really struggling, and just a blanket “Trump voter.” There are many successful people who are Trump voters. And, at this point, I really don’t care what makes them tick. So, if this movie was going to hit with people, I think I would be one of them. I know the people in this movie. Many of the people remind me of people in my own family. But it didn’t hit. Again, I don’t know who Hillbilly Elegy is for. Well, except maybe J.D. Vance.

‘Hillbilly Elegy’ will stream via Netflix on November 24th. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.