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Arts & Life

Movie Version Of 'Hillbilly Elegy' Fails To Deliver

Lacey Terrell
From left to right: Glenn Close ("Mamaw") and Amy Adams ("Bev") in "Hillbilly Elegy."

The new film Hillbilly Elegy is based on the best-selling 2016 memoir by J.D. Vance, who grew up in dreadful circumstances in Appalachia and southern Ohio. For KUNC film critic Howie Movshovitz, the picture tests the meaning of the word "elegy."

I think that elegies tend to be somewhat elegant, and also to praise their subjects, but Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy does neither. If writer J.D. Vance wanted to honor his upbringing, his damning is extensive, and his praise is less than faint. The movie is mostly a picture of terrible family angst fueled by a grandmother (Glenn Close) who starts the movie snarling and giving the finger, and a mother (Amy Adams), a heroin addict who beats and berates her son.

It reminds me of William Faulkner’s novel Absalom! Absalom. A young man from the South tells his friend in the north a dreadful tale of arrogance, hatred, racism, vengeance, and murder. The friend asks, “Why do you hate the South?” And the young man repeats desperately, “I don’t hate the South; I don’t hate it. I don’t hate the South.”

The desperate Hillbilly Elegy doesn’t make you see why J.D. Vance wants to honor his Appalachian roots, and it doesn’t make you appreciate any mixed blessing of a beautiful culture which just happens to have a downside of anger and violence. At least as the movie shows it, there is no culture; there is only the strife. This family may be J.D. Vance’s home, but nothing of the beauty of Appalachian life pokes through – no music, no dance, no community.

No moments go without explosions of anger. One of J.D.’s mother’s boyfriends brings him a puppy, and within seconds she’s screaming at the boy because the dog pees on the floor, and then she shames and beats him for his panic. After J.D.’s grandfather dies, his mother becomes unhinged by grief and drugs. Young J.D. lives in a triangle of his screaming mother and nasty but sometimes loving grandmother. The only bright spots are the ferocious performances of these two actresses – in a lost cause.

Hillbilly Elegy wraps this childhood horror inside the story of how Vance (Gabriel Basso) finally escapes. He’s a round-faced, soft-looking kid who continually looks out of place. He joins the Marines out of high school and inexplicably winds up at Yale Law School, stuck at a dinner for students with major law firms looking for interns. The dinner can determine the careers for ambitious lawyers-to-be. And while this still-out of place young man is trying to figure out what fork to use and how to deal with the snobbery at the table, he gets a call from his frantic sister back in Ohio that his mother has overdosed on heroin.

It’s astonishing how much torture and abuse erupt out of our screens right now, and also how easily characters survive it. They go through hell for 90 minutes until suddenly they emerge happy and unmarked. In actuality, of course, there’s not a chance that someone goes through a life like J.D.’s and somehow bears no scars. The ease of survival in this film makes the misery into a kind of pornography. J.D.’s good life after the horror is marked by cheap on-screen titles

It’s no secret that J.D. Vance’s story ends well, at least on the surface – the book came out in 2016 – so the ghastly life inflicted on him becomes just entertainment. There’s no cost to it, because we know he survives, gets his internship, eventually marries and, from what the movie has to say, lives in some kind of canned bliss.

And there are questions of what we get out of watching this fury and abuse. It’s like postcards of misery. Cost-free voyeurism. This is not an argument for happy endings or feel-good movies. But it is an argument that if there’s going to be such pain, it has to count for something beyond itself. It can’t be whitewashed away. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter, and it is pornographic.

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