It’s been a few days since I watched Hillbilly Elegy, and the bad taste in my mouth still lingers. The idea that a white guy at Yale is supposed to be an underdog who overcame the odds because he escaped a stereotypical redneck family, and that it’s supposed to be inspiring, still feels disgusting because it’s just so goddamned tone deaf. J.D. Vance may have started out as a slightly less privileged white guy in relative terms (so did I, for the record), but he turned into a guy who blames the poor, including the roots from which he sprouted, for their own poverty, and now he expects to be celebrated for it. Fuck and no.
Thank God then, that there’s a film like Minari, which effortlessly accomplishes what that other movie bent over backwards to fail at. It tells a believable story about pulling oneself up by the proverbial bootstraps. It provides compelling family drama without relying on stereotypes. It has an eccentric grandmother that isn’t just a one note joke. It even acknowledges the economic difficulties of the rural south without pandering or insult. In short, it’s everything that Hillbilly Elegy isn’t, most importantly the fact that it’s good and entertaining.
Set in the 1980s, the film focuses on the Yi family, Korean immigrants who move from California to rural Arkansas. Patriarch Jacob (a fantastic Steven Yeun) has chosen a large plot of land with a mobile home as their new abode, in hopes of farming Korean vegetables to sell in major cities like Dallas. His wife, Monica (Ye-ri Han) is immediately skeptical, as this move is a major culture shock from her normal city life, and because they now live an hour’s drive from the nearest hospital, which could prove crucial if their son, David (Alan Kim) has complications with his congenital heart defect.
Right from the off, these are believable characters. Jacob is determined to make a better life for his kids, as he’s spent the last several years barely scraping by as a chicken sexer (it’s not as gross as it seems, though it leads to a not so great end for about half the chickens) and knows he’s capable of so much more. Monica, on the other hand, could easily be painted as a nagging wife who’s just never satisfied, but writer/director Lee Isaac Chung (who wrote the script in a semi-autobiographical perspective from his own childhood) makes sure that she has equal agency and that her concerns are equally valid. We learn later on through the couple’s arguments that Jacob feels an obligation as the eldest son in his family to be the most successful, which only adds to his dimensions, because while a general audience might not be up to speed on Korean social culture, anyone can relate to the idea of an ingrained sense of obligation, even if in a vacuum it might seem irrational.
And then there are the kids, David and his older sister Anne (Noel Kate Cho). Fully Americanized, the two speak fluent English while also defaulting to Korean with their parents, something that many minority and immigrant children in this country do. But what’s really important is that these kids are allowed to be actual kids. They’re not symbols of anything, they don’t act with some maturity or wisdom beyond their years, and despite eavesdropping on their parents’ fights, they live in relative ignorance of the problems of the world at large. That’s what kids are supposed to do, and it’s so refreshing to see this perfectly normal depiction. It also helps that as a POV character and avatar for Chung, little Alan Kim is adorable as fuck. He’s not overly precocious, mind you, he’s just a cute 7-year-old who acts as 7-year-olds do, for better and worse. For example, in a particularly tense scene, he’s about to be punished for a prank he’s pulled by being whipped with a stick (totally acceptable back then), but he accidentally breaks it whilst fetching it for Jacob. His dad orders him outside to find a new one, and fumbling around in the dark, he brings back a flimsy piece of long grass. As it’s declared, “He won this one,” and everyone laughs, perfectly puncturing the tension. It’s a great moment because he’s not being particularly clever, trying to outwit his father. He’s just a kid being a kid, and the execution is glorious.
In an attempt to bring some harmony to the household and put Monica’s mind at ease, Jacob invites her mother, Soon-ja, to emigrate and move in with them. Played by celebrated Korean actress Yuh-jung Youn, Soon-ja is a welcome presence, a caring grandmother seeking to bond with David, whom she hadn’t met to this point. Their relationship forms the second main bond of the story and gives the film its title, as Soon-ja plants Minari seeds (a form of Asian parsley) along a nearby creek, because as long as there is running water, the plant can thrive in pretty much any environment. It stands as the grand metaphor of the entire movie, the “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere” of plants.
Compare Soon-ja to Hillbilly Elegy‘s “Mamaw,” played by Glenn Close. “Mamaw” is a one-dimensional caricature, an old lady who cusses and is casually racist, but will occasionally dispense some entry-level wisdom in between her chain smoking. Soon-ja, on the other hand, never stops trying to form a connection with David, especially when he constantly resists her because she doesn’t fit his 7-year-old kid paradigm of what a “proper grandma” is. She doesn’t bake cookies, she makes bitter herbal teas for David to drink. She doesn’t tell stories, she plays cards and watches pro wrestling, thinking it’s real, mostly because she’s never been exposed to it (as opposed to the hill folk types in that other movie, who probably think it’s real because they’re just plain stupid). Not being used to American culture, she thinks Mountain Dew is actually rainwater from the mountains. She eventually acclimates and assimilates to a degree because she wants to learn and grow to be the grandmother that David needs, encouraging yet firm when needed. It’s a stark contrast to someone like “Mamaw,” who is firmly stuck in her ways, heels dug in six feet deep. There’s no changing her, and she doesn’t want to change. As such, there’s no room for character development, whereas Soon-ja, thanks in large part to Youn’s great performance, is constantly changing and developing.
There’s one more character worth mentioning, and that’s Paul, played by veteran character actor Will Patton. Introduced when he transports a tractor to the Yis’ land, Paul is an ultra uber mega evangelical and a Korean War veteran who takes a job tending the crops with Jacob. Initially he can come off like a caricature himself, in that he speaks in tongues, twitches, and prays constantly, and even drags a cross up and down the road as his “church” on Sundays. He could have been dismissed as a hyper Christian kook, but again, steps are taken to humanize him and fill out the character. Having served in Korea, he develops an instant rapport with Jacob, even if the latter finds him a bit odd. He gives good, strong advice on how to raise crops. But most importantly, he’s not judgmental in any way, often bridging the gap between the Yi family and the distinctly monochromatic community that they’ve joined. He’s offered up as an invitation for mockery, but it’s only the local white kids who do so, and he takes it in stride.
This makes for a much better representation of rural white American than Hillbilly Elegy could have ever hoped for. That film begins by romanticizing the open hostility of hill folk, where violence begets violence and racism abounds. And maybe those sentiments are out there just beneath the surface with the Arkansas town and church that the Yis join, but Chung makes sure to introduce them as basically decent and welcoming people. The kids mock Paul, and a young boy named Johnnie asks David why his face is so flat when they first meet, but that’s it. And rather than setting up conflict, David simply corrects Johnnie and they become friends. Johnnie’s not hateful or bigoted, he’s just never met an Asian person before, and being a kid, his natural curiosity came out without a politically correct filter. That’s innocent. That’s understanding. God help me, that’s nuance. As adults, we know that people can bring out the claws (and the guns) when their preconceived notions and status quo is threatened with even the most minute of changes, but this isn’t a story about that. It’s a story about a family taking a major risk and potentially crumbling from within, so there’s no need to create an outside threat. As such, Chung defaults to the fact that most people will be pleasant enough and leave you alone if you do the same, and in the case of someone like Paul, who has his own quirks that could easily be exploited, he creates a friend rather than an antagonist.
The only complaint I have about the movie is that the entire third act climax is telegraphed fairly early on. I won’t give it away, but within the first moments in the new home, you can already see what the final catalyst will be. The foreshadowing is cast HARD, here, but honestly, I didn’t mind all that much. I saw it coming, and as the final act unfolded and my guess was being confirmed, I was so locked in and engaged in the proceedings that I was actively pleading with my screen for it not to happen, even though I knew it would. If you’re going to tip your hand, that’s the way to do it, honestly. Yeah, it’s right out in the open without it being an explicit spoiler or historical fact – like say, Titanic – but the story and characters are so strong (not to mention a lovely minimalist score by Emile Mosseri) that you’re invested anyway.
The American Dream has many forms, each unique to whatever person is dreaming it, and this is a great way to illustrate it. Show the realistic family dynamic of people striking out on their own, knowing they might fail. Create characters that are true to life regardless of background without making fun of them. Tell a story that makes sense. This is what Hillbilly Elegy could never properly grasp, which is why it was so bad. Here, however, it works perfectly. There’s a song that David and Soon-ja make up on the spot while at the creek growing the parsley that’s simply, “Minari is wonderful, Minari is wonderful” over and over.
You’re goddamn right. Minari is wonderful.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What is your version of the American Dream? Is anyone else hungry for kimchi right now? Let me know!