For many viewers, Netflix’s Hillbilly Elegy will need no introduction. It was only four years ago that J.D. Vance’s memoir, which follows his coming-of-age in a poor Appalachian family, was being touted as the key to understanding Trump voters during a particularly shocking election. And while the book has received its share of criticism and controversy, it was, for a time, emblematic of a certain conversation around race, class, and politics in America.
But the new movie adaptation, directed by Ron Howard, doesn’t really try to do all that. Instead, it narrows its focus to this one specific guy and his personal problems, with little effort to tie his story to the culture that raised him. That approach may be less likely to inspire scoffs and eye-rolls and heated think pieces from those skeptical of Vance’s analysis of the white working class. Without that social commentary, though, Hillbilly Elegy becomes just another bland iteration on the tired “triumph over adversity” formula.
Bev and Mamaw are awards-show highlight reels in search of actual characters.
In place of a compelling hero, it offers a person-shaped lump of oatmeal. While Gabriel Basso, who plays J.D. in young adulthood, and Owen Asztalos, who plays him in childhood, try their best to make the character likable, they can’t make up for a script (by Vanessa Taylor) that forgets to give J.D. even one single personality trait. For a kid so exceptional that he was able to lift himself up by the bootstraps out of poverty and into the august halls of Yale Law, the J.D. we see onscreen is an oddly passive character, forever reacting to the action around him rather than driving it forward.
The characters around him are more vivid, at least in theory. J.D.’s mother, Bev, is a mercurial soul hardened by disappointment and drug addiction, while her mother, Mamaw, is a straight-shooting mama bear in enormous glasses and even more enormous t-shirts. Amy Adams and Glenn Close throw themselves into these roles, de-glamming themselves and adopting thick acceptance to scream or sob in scene after scene. Underneath all that, however, Bev and Mamaw suffer from the same lack of depth that J.D. does. Adams and Close’s performances are awards-show highlight reels in search of actual characters.
Much the same could be said of the predicaments that these characters find themselves in. Hillbilly Elegy reduces the Vances’ struggles with money, abuse, and addiction to showy spectacles for a comfortable audience to gawk at — a public breakdown here, a fiery flashback there — while demonstrating little understanding of the day-to-day reality of them. It has no sense of the specific places that J.D. grew up in, no eye for the details of a life lived on the brink, no touch for the tenderness or the tension that might hang over a family this close-knit but complicated. Ostensibly, this is J.D.’s story, and yet its perspective feels more closely aligned with those of the Yale Law snobs who liken Kentucky to “another planet” in an early scene.
The closest Hillbilly Elegy ever gets to capturing the lived experience of being a Vance is in Haley Bennett’s refreshingly understated performance as Lindsay, J.D.’s older sister who doesn’t make it quite as far outside the family legacy of hardship and dysfunction as he does. But how far she does make it is unclear. Like the other women in this movie, including J.D.’s infinitely patient girlfriend Usha (Freida Pinto), Lindsay exists only to serve J.D.’s plot and gracefully recedes from view when she’s not needed for that.
The whole point of Hillbilly Elegy is that J.D. is a product of the circumstances that made him; this notion is even baked into the structure of the film, which cuts between his current (well, circa 2011) life as a promising law student and his adolescence in 1990s Appalachia. Yet the movie does not get around to figuring out what makes J.D. or his background special, so worthy of our attention. Its whole deal is perhaps best exemplified by a Mamaw truism that there are three kinds of people in the world: “good Terminators, bad Terminators, and neutral.” Like that saying, Hillbilly Elegy sounds folksy but conveys nothing. It’s the “and neutral” of movies, taking up space to no end at all.
Hillbilly Elegy starts streaming Nov. 24 on Netflix.