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"Hillbilly Elegy" Takes Some Wrong Turns

Claire, an ex-pat Montanan, ardent Progressive and former jeweler, covers NYC-based film festivals for Bright Lights Film Journal.

Hillbilly Elegy.

Hillbilly Elegy.

Southern Boy, Gone North

It’s been almost four years since I read JD Vance’s bestselling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy.

Vance and I are rural-state expats. We share abiding love, an enduring pride, and yes, a smidge of resentment for our home states. Back in 2016, the year Vance's book was published, Donald Trump took the White House. Readers like me, looking for a polished window into the minds of rural voters, snapped up this story of a Southern Boy Gone North.

This poignant memoir prompted a lot of praise, but it also earned stout mule-kick from Kentuckians, because... at least in part, Hillbilly Elegy reads like a grateful escape.

Southern Chins and Baggy Chintz

Ron Howard’s movie version, released on Netflix last week, is likely to jut a few more Southern chins.

Some detractors will be from the same chorus of offended Kentuckians who resented Vance's depiction of his real-life family. Others, like me, will be upset at the small way this movie was made.

As both producer and director of Hillbilly Elegy, Howard deserves, as JD Vance's grandmother Mamaw might say, "a good talking to."

Vance's book opened my heart to the tenderness, deep struggles, and head-nodding pride of the South. Howard's movie closed in on Vance's story, which pulled away from the substance of the book.

Screenwriter Vanessa Taylor, who co-wrote The Shape of Water and Game of Thrones, conveyed depth and complexity in those projects. Her Hillbilly Elegy screenplay took a wrong turn just north of Frankfort.

I was confused from the moment I saw the Netflix promo featuring Glen Close and Amy Adams. This is JD's memoir. Where, I wondered, is JD?

Netflix dangled box office bait in those promos, featuring Adams, who plays JD's troubled mother Bev, and Close, who plays Mamaw. These women frame the story, but JD is the Hillbilly in the Elegy. Actor Gabriel Basso is a convincing young adult JD. He's smart and hurt and conflicted, and he has genuine chemistry with his love interest, Frieda Pinto, who plays Usha with shy aplomb.

Adolescent JD, played by Owen Asztalos, is the movie's emotional velcro. Everything sticks to this kid. Carrying fifteen pounds of emotional insulation. Asztalos is remarkable, with a vapid 'slap-me' teenage expression and a tender aura.

Amy Adams' character is stuck on a merry-go-round of misery. Here she comes … cue the music ... there she goes. Her Bev is so predictably, flatly unlikable, it's hard to appreciate the job Adams did portraying her. It looked like a lot of work.

Glen Close, though, makes the movie. Her Mamaw, a saggy bag of bony chintz, is a master of nasty, loving nuance.

If anyone claims these actors didn't accurately depict "real Kentuckians," wait for the closing credits: the family photos that run alongside them are some of the best moments of the whole movie. The resemblances of the actors to their real-life counterparts is nothing short of jaw-dropping.

These actors aren't the problem.

Director Ron Howard's "Hillbilly Elegy" misses the mark.

Director Ron Howard's "Hillbilly Elegy" misses the mark.

"Where We Come From is Who We Are"

How does Hillbilly Elegy fail?

It fails in the same way as Running With Scissors and The Glass Castle, two other bestselling gut-punch memoirs made into movies: scenes that had larger meaning on the printed page fall flat when reduced to film.

It doesn't help that recurring family violence, awful from the get-go, rolls around again and again. It doesn’t escalate or resolve. The space where suffering could be anchored to the movie’s theme is occupied more by plot than thought.

The Zen of the movie--the friction between where JD is, where he was, and where he’s going--could have given us a broader understanding, posing the same questions on a larger scale.

Vance's book made me ask big questions about the past, present, and future of the American South. The movie version didn't ask more of me than to root for a good outcome for a likable character, doing his level best to shake off the burdens of dysfunction. If it had been a Hallmark Channel movie, I'd say it was well done. It stings that the story that was shown was so ... small. "Fresh eyes" on Vanessa Taylor's screenplay might have helped. A more expansive directorial style could have turned a potentially touching story into a cultural touchstone.

Ron Howard has the benefit of maturity and the success to attract fine talent to his projects. He can be held underwater by yokels like me, and come up without spitting.

I admit it. It's not the movie that worries me. It's not (just) the South that worries me. It's us that worries me ... I may be taking out my angst about our national divisions on poor Ron Howard. I keep asking myself how we got here, and I look to the insight of artists to help me understand. JD Vance's bestselling book offered insight.

Ron Howard's movie did not.