A Colossal Cinematic Hick-Up – Hillbilly Elegy

Back in December, an episode of Family Guy entitled “Pawtucket Pat” ends with Peter musing about whether or not there’s ever been an award-winning movie where the protagonist becomes more conservative over the course of his story, and having that be seen as positive growth. The joke is that no one can think of one, with the creepy suggestion of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis from a one-off character. It’s presented in jest, but I think it’s a valid question. Why aren’t there all that many prestige movies that at least give credence to a conservative lead?

The answer is because when they do get made, you get pieces of shit like Hillbilly Elegy, a pedantic, whitewashed personal history based on the memoirs of an oft-rebuked conservative lawyer and pundit. Directed by Ron Howard, the life story of J.D. Vance has the polish of an Oscar-baiting story of inspiration and personal triumph, but once you get past the sheen, it’s just a polished turd full of cliché and stereotypes about so-called “real Americans.”

Vance’s autobiography of the same name, published in 2016, was an instant best-seller because people sought meaning in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election, and Vance was conveniently there to lecture about how rural, blue collar people felt ignored by their government, and that he knew their struggle having grown from those roots. The book has been roundly criticized for being self-serving and self-congratulatory, and for ignoring all the systemic problems that he and his ilk perpetuate while simultaneously giving themselves an even bigger piece of the pie by trying to cut social programs intended to help these same people. He makes very judgmental blanket statements about “junkies” and “welfare queens” based on his very limited anecdotes, leading to a good deal of coverage from these very same people saying that Vance does not represent them or their ideals.

For the most part, Ron Howard and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (who also co-wrote Divergent and The Shape of Water) remove the explicit political angles from the story, which is about the only reason that the film even approaches the level of “palatable.” But even with that shoehorned neutrality, there are still way too many problems with this movie to recommend it. In all honesty, the only reason I watched it is because it is somehow garnering Awards Season attention despite its shameless nature. Glenn Close has earned multiple Supporting Actress nominations, and there’s an outside chance Amy Adams could be up for Best Actress. The film is also shortlisted by the Academy in Makeup & Hairstyling. I’ll break down those individual categories shortly.

The film itself is split between two time periods. The first is 1997, where a then 13-year-old Vance (Owen Asztalos) vacations in Appalachian Kentucky with his extended family before returning to Middletown, Ohio for the school year. These flashback sequences are narrated by the adult Vance (Gabriel Basso) like some pale imitation of The Wonder Years, only instead of young love and life lessons, Vance is nostalgic for the simple joys of being nearly drowned by bullies and then seeing said bullies get their asses beat by their parents. You know, “real America.” Within these first five minutes, I’ve basically already checked out, because when your “hero” reminisces about felony assault and child abuse as good things while proclaiming, “This is where my people are from,” you know you’re in trouble. As generations of lily white family photos flash on the screen, the average viewer is sitting there going, “Um, no, your people are from Europe, dipshit.”

The rest of the movie takes place 14 years later, in 2011, where Vance, now a law student at Yale, is trying to secure a high-paying summer internship in Washington, DC with his future wife, Usha (Freida Pinto, whose real-life counterpart allows for the existence of a token minority in the film) in order to afford his tuition. He’s confident and self-assured… until he goes to a fancy networking dinner and can’t figure out which fork to use. Remember, this is ostensibly a story about someone who “pulled himself up by the bootstraps” to succeed, yet he still runs out in a panic and has to ask his girlfriend for the answer, rather than, you know, just observing the other people at his table and using whatever fork they use each course. Then again, in this exact same scene, a guy who grows up to use euphemisms like “coastal elites” gets offended at the use of the word, “redneck,” so the intellectual dishonesty abounds from fairly early on.

During this dinner, he gets an emergency call from his sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett). His mother Bev (Adams) is in the hospital after overdosing on heroin, so he high-tails it home (a 10-hour drive) to take care of her, only to be given an arbitrary “ticking clock” deadline in the form of the law firm he really likes offering him a final interview, but he has to make it back to New Haven the very next morning. With his future looming large and his mother’s burden weighing him down, Vance has to figure out how to deal with a lifetime’s worth of drama and trauma while still living for himself.

The film vacillates between these two timelines, basically making a case for why Vance should abandon his family for his own good. There’s a hefty amount of victim shaming and deflected blame from Vance himself, which only perpetuates the hick stereotypes. In the past, Bev becomes a drug addict and loses her job as a nurse. She gets a new one, but in order for her to keep her license, she needs a clean urine sample, and after she begs J.D. to pee in the cup for her, he rants about her responsibility to clean up her own mess and get clean. In the film’s present, Bev is getting kicked out of the hospital because she let her health insurance lapse.

In a more nuanced film, there’d be stuff to explore here. Should Bev be on drugs? Of course not, but the opioid crisis hits the Rust Belt harder than any place in the country, and the stresses of her life lead her down the path from legal painkillers to heroin. By the time she needs to pee in a cup, there’s no “solution” that will satisfy Vance’s resentment and allow his mother to keep providing for him. But no, she’s a junkie, so she deserves this humiliation. It’s not the hospital’s fault for charging too much for emergency care, or the insurance company’s fault for existing, or the government’s fault for not instituting a universal healthcare system. No, it’s Bev’s for not spending her money properly. Even when teenage J.D. acts out and fucks up – committing vandalism, stealing a car, shoplifting, doing drugs, etc. – it’s not his fault, it’s his mom’s for never giving him a stable home, you know, like the good old hill folk who beat each other senseless and nearly drown children in rivers!

And of course, along this journey of projection and dismissal, you get cliché after cliché. J.D. takes his mom to rehab. She says “No, no, no.” In the past she beats him like a guest on Jerry Springer. The moment he leaves her alone in a motel room, she immediately tries to shoot up again. At his grandfather’s funeral, the Kentucky folk line up to greet the procession in the streets, to which grandmother Bonnie, aka “Mamaw” (Close) declares, “We’re hill folk. We respect our dead.” Oh well, wasn’t that fucking enlightening?! So no one else respects the dead? Got it. But hey, J.D. likes fried bologna sandwiches, so clearly he’s just a good old boy at heart. Gag me. Also, the way they all say “Mamaw” and “Papaw” is annoying in the extreme.

Okay, so now let’s get to the potential Oscar stuff. First, there’s Glenn Close as “Mamaw.” There is nothing extraordinary about this performance. She’s just a shit-talking grandma. I will admit that I got a tiny bit of meta enjoyment out of this. See, in an episode of The Simpsons entitled “Any Given Sundance,” Lisa makes a documentary about her family that doesn’t exactly paint them in a positive light. After they see the film, the family turns on her. Lisa tries to explain this away by referring to her home life as “quirky.” In response, Homer says something to the effect of, “Quirky? Quirky is what you call an old lady who gives you the finger!” Now, some years later, here’s Glenn Close, who plays Homer’s mother on the show, doing exactly that.

And that’s really all she does. She cusses and flips the occasional bird while dispensing half-assed morals about “Good vs. Bad Terminators” while several minutes’ worth of footage from Terminator 2 is reduced to 30 seconds to fit the scene (just horrible editing). June Squibb did the same thing in 2013 in Nebraska, and did it way better. She got nominated for Supporting Actress, but didn’t win. So why should Glenn Close get nominated now? Funnily enough, I renewed my Razzie membership this year, and this past week was the nominating phase. Right now, Close is actually on the shortlist for WORST Supporting Actress. I would laugh my ass off if she was somehow up for both, and for the same role.

Moving on to Amy Adams, we have our second A-list actress vying for that elusive Oscar. She and Close have 13 failed nominations between them, so both are well overdue for recognition. But if she wins here, I’ll eat my proverbial hat. The entirety of Adams’ character can be summed up as the Bizarro World version of her character from Junebug. Back then she was overly sweet, excitable, and adorably dimwitted. Here she’s mean, violent, and bitter about how smart she is (it’s mentioned numerous times that she finished 2nd in her high school class, but never went anywhere because she got pregnant at 18). With better material, Bev could have been a very well made tragic character. Instead, she’s a screaming caricature of every Fox News viewer’s idea of someone who refuses to take “personal responsibility” for themselves and who actually delights in their poverty. It’s honestly kind of offensive.

Finally, there’s the makeup. Here’s where I’ll give the film a bit of credit. Glenn Close does NOT look like Glenn Close. And while Amy Adams’ face is still visible through her makeup, everything else about her is essentially foreign in appearance. I don’t know if I’d nominate the film in the category, but I do recognize that there was some fairly high achievement in this one aspect.

Apart from that, though, this movie is a shameful, shameless piece of garbage. If there’s a single moment that encapsulates just how bad this is – and one that very nearly answers the joking Family Guy question from the beginning of this review – it’s this. There’s a scene in 1997 where J.D. Vance rides down the street in Middletown, a blue-collar city that’s been in decline since industry moved out, and he passes a dilapidated movie theatre. On the marquee, letters have fallen off, but you can just make out that the last movie shown there was Forrest Gump, which is celebrated by conservative groups as a quintessential American bootstrap tale. If a sign showing its crumbling remains isn’t a metaphor for this entire wasted endeavor, I don’t know what is.

Grade: D

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Should merely competent performances be rewarded in terrible movies? How the hell does a dirt poor law school student have at least FIVE credit cards to max out? Let me know!

4 thoughts on “A Colossal Cinematic Hick-Up – Hillbilly Elegy

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