Firing Whine with Ronnie Gardocki and Dr. Daniel Daughhetee: Hillbilly Elegy
The hillbilly. What is he? Is he a simple bumpkin–bewildered and upset by modern inventions such as the cellular phone and interracial marriage? Or is he the more insidious redneck–the wife beating so-called Evangelical who votes against his own interest? The hillbilly, in fact, is a land of contrasts, as seen by authentic son of the soil Ron Howard’s new film, Hillbilly Elegy. Based on J.D. Vance’s book of same name, the film traces J.D. Vance’s path from dumb hick to simple country lawyer. Along the way he manages to burn every bridge to his past life in Ohio/Kentucky in favor of the plum position as the liberal intelligentsia rural folk whisperer. If this is at all illustrative of Vance’s book–I don’t know for certain, I don’t know how to read–it’s amazing self-own of not only him but his entire family. This may as well be a remake of Mommie Dearest.
How so? Well, basically J.D. Vance is a success in of spite of his awful mother, not because of her. When I found out she was still alive I hoped she’d have the temerity to sue the fatheaded fucker for defamation. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The plot is thus: successful Iraq War veteran (he calls it “a great opportunity”, the first thing anybody thinks regarding that bloody debacle) and law student J.D. Vance must confront his past while trying to secure an interview at The Big Firm. It’s a fucking internship by the way; there’s all the suspense of a season of Entourage, with “will J.D. get the job” instead of “will Vince do the movie”. In place of Johnny Drama and Turtle are drugs and a literal turtle with a cracked shell whom young J.D. rescues early on. It’s his most sympathetic moment, because otherwise he’s whining about how much he hates his mom and family, either past or present. Don’t worry, he also dislikes the coastal elites who expect him to know which fork is used for what and look down on his roots he himself eschews.
Glenn Close as Bubbles in the American Trailer Park Boys no one asked for.
Hillbilly Elegy rankles from the very start with a choice that became even more eye-rolling in retrospect as the movie unfolded. Howard decided that his big meditation on humanizing the wily hillfolk should begin with a series of Wild America style footage of the hayseed in its natural environment: a junked up porch. Shots of actual Eastern Kentucky people are captured from a moving vehicle leaving the impression that Ron was happy to get a little drive by B-roll from the car rather than risk coming any closer to these people. Right away the safari angle is established with footage of some houses in need of repair and people who would look out of place at, say, a fancy dinner at Yale Law School. The intent is to evoke a sense of decay, dilapidation, and depression, the sort of environment a smart young man with a go-getter spirit would be right to turn his back on. It’s “How the Other Half Lives” done quarter-assed.
I kinda hoped that when faced with an array of confusing forks to wield, J.D. would panic like Frankenstein’s Monster and start tossing people across the room. He’s basically Hillbilly Frankenstein in this anyway.
I found myself thinking back on this montage frequently as the movie went on because while this seems to recognize the systemic impoverishment of this region of the country, nothing that happens in the movie engages with that large-scale disinvestment whatsoever. The closest we get is a back to back shot which juxtaposes a working mill in Middleton, OH in Young J.D. times with its abandoned form in Law School J.D. times. For things to be falling apart, they had to be built in the first place. So what was it that led to Appalachia being invested in in the first place? What happened in between the “building” of Appalachia and the dilapidation so exotically captured by Ron’s passing van? I can’t speak for the book, but the movie is almost pointedly incurious about that. The words “coal” or “mine” are nowhere to be found in the script. The crisis in profitability for resource extraction in the region and the subsequent retreat of capital which left incredible poverty in its wake is of no moral or even explanatory interest to the film. No, Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy takes place in a moral and economic universe where mineral extraction companies owned by Wall Street investors taking all of the money gained from blowing up mountains and giving generations of Appalachian people black lung and going home with it is the aggregate fault of the personal choices of a bunch of pill-popping white trash.
It HAS to be that way, because otherwise the GOOD personal choices of Young J.D. wouldn’t have the dramatic heft necessary to carry a feature film (not that they do anyway). This movie is a big sloppy kiss to what we might call The Striver, the perfect neoliberal subject who navigates the options presented to them with an eye toward personal advancement and institutional validation. The entire dramatic stakes of the film boil down to one question: will J.D. let his fuck-up junkie mother stand between him and his first choice of a position at a high powered law firm? Not whether he will be a lawyer at all or not, because as a Yale Law graduate J.D. has the credentials that will be the Golden Ticket to never missing a meal in his life again. No, it’s whether he will get a position at his PREFERRED white-shoe law firm.
Structurally, the movie is a barely-followable interweaving of Law School J.D.’s storyline of being called back to Ohio from New Haven to help his sister deal with their struggling drug addict mother with recollections of important moments in J.D.’s childhood relating to his mother and grandmother. The movie attempts to thematically tie the events of Law School J.D.’s story to the childhood scenes which (I think?) are inserted in chronological order when one cuts into the other, but these links are so tenuous as to leave the audience bereft of any thread to follow. Instead of one story told in a chronological way what we get are two stories told in parallel that keep switching back to one another and whose only really through-line is the contempt J.D. has for his mother.
I myself did not grow up in an abusive household and I am not the child of an addict, so I cannot speak to how one confronts that in their adulthood. Because of that I’m giving Vance a wide berth in how to manage his feelings. What I can speak to are the choices he and Ron made from a dramatic standpoint with regard to the mother, as this movie presents her not as a person struggling with addiction and her own history of abuse but as a constant embarrassment and above all an obstacle to J.D.’s Frank Dolarhyde-style Becoming. (Instead of a Red Dragon he has a full body tattoo of a boot with its laces strapped up.) I was honestly shocked to see in the ending credits “where are they now” bit that his mother is still alive (no thanks to him, which I’ll get to below), because this entire movie and I presume the book is airing one woman’s dirty laundry to the entire world. It’s the kind of thing you don’t write until the person you’re writing about is dead, or so I would have thought. When you’re a young hot shot conservative from an Appalachia adjacent region, you evidently feel totally at ease writing a book about My Shitty Mother in order to establish your credentials as a hillbilly whisperer.
If you can’t make it out, the paper says “Hillary Clinton Libya report – What went wrong?”. See, this is an easter egg for the real fans. The movie can’t go on without Benghazi grievance mongering.
For all its positioning as a movie about one brave, round boy’s escape from generational poverty in Appalachia, the Young J.D. storyline shows that the culture he rejects in order to avoid a life of delinquency is not the Kentucky holler at all but dissipated suburban ennui in a comfortable petit bourgeois setting. You see, Mom ends up married to her anesthesiologist boss, so he moves in with her at the doctor’s comfortable Ohio McMansion where we also find that J.D. now has a cool teen step-brother who loves to get high and play video games. It’s only under the influence of this cool teen and his equally cool friends that our “hero” begins to experiment with drinking and drugs and gets into some light property destruction, which the film presents with the kind of dread and shaky camera work typically reserved for William S. Burroughs level debauchery. It is this horror show of monkeyshines by bored teens running wild on one Coors Light each that is the last straw for Meemaw, who in a struggle of wills with J.D.’s mother convinces J.D. to move in with her that he might be set on the right path, which is depicted with some scenes of J.D. being a helpful boy around the house and doing his homework (the ultimate rejection of evil).
The actual circumstances of J.D.’s harrowing brush with being fun and cool make the film’s presumed juxtaposition of meritocratic success with hillbilly decadence completely absurd. J.D.’s stepfather is a paid up member of the successful Striving Class, a meritocrat who has established a thriving practice in a respected professional field who also happens to grow his own weed and has a cool bong-toting son. The choice to be made for J.D. isn’t between his hillbilly roots with its ostensibly pathological culture of poverty and drug abuse, it’s between one expression of meritocratic success with another! The choice isn’t between the holler and the academy: it’s between coasting into the big state party school or buckling down and getting a scholarship to the Ivies.
It’s never good to have a BETTER film within your own film, because it just reminds the audience they could be watching that instead.
Speaking of the Ivies, the movie resolves J.D.’s dilemma of whether to help his mother get clean after an overdose or making it to the big interview with his preferred law firm in a way that is so psychopathic yet presented in the film so heroically that I spent the last ten minutes of the movie alternating between laughing hysterically and telling my TV to shut the fuck up. In the aftermath of an attempt to get his mother into rehab, J.D. takes her to a hotel that, as his sister put it, “she stays at sometimes,” heavily implying that this isn’t exactly a spot for detox. After getting her set up in the room, J.D. leaves to get some take out and on his return finds his mother about to inject in the bathroom. The two physically struggle over the syringe, but J.D.’s innate Large Round Boy strength wins out over his crazy-eyed mother and he empties and flushes the needle. After a Drug Freakout scene which left bits of scenery visible in Amy Adams’s teeth, mom calms down enough to lay down on the bed and let J.D. tell her with utmost conviction that he’s ready to do whatever it takes to help her get clean, except also that he has to leave to return to New Haven for that interview.
Hey, what did I say???
Yes, folks, J.D. gets to have his cake and eat it too! There doesn’t have to be a choice between his mother and his dream of one day defending a corporation’s right to use slave labor at the Supreme Court because J.D. can have it all! Dear reader, I was hooting and hollering. I said earlier that I was surprised that J.D.’s mother was still alive and that’s not only because I can’t imagine the gall it takes to write this story about someone who will presumably see it but also because HE LEFT A HEROIN ADDICT ALONE AFTER DESTROYING HER LAST DOSE. If this really is how it went down in real life, it’s a miracle J.D.’s mother is alive and clean, and that miracle cannot in any way have been J.D.’s doing. The actual story of HOW this woman faced her addiction and got clean is left totally untold. She exists only as a foil to J.D.’s paragon of Making Good Choices, she exists only as an obstacle for him to overcome. Presumably his sister, who still lives in Middleton or nearby, picked up the slack once he left but her story is likewise left totally untold.
But the viewers of Hillbilly Elegy are left to presume that thanks to J.D.’s heroic effort of reluctantly driving back home after his mother almost died of an overdose and yelling at her for a while, he managed to transmit to her the capacity to make good choices that made him the law talkin’ guy he is today.
If the content of the movie doesn’t excite you, don’t worry, because it’s not done well either. Before people saw the trailer and realized “oh, this is what this is”, Oscar buzz abounded for Ron Howard and company, especially Amy Adams and Glenn Close, who play the mother and grandmother, respectively. Now, both are obviously great actors, as shown in their work as the fat-sucking vampire on Smallville and as Homer Simpson’s mother (again respectively). Neither do a good job here. Never do you think these are people; they’re characters. You’re watching Amy Adams do heroin chic. She’s high on opiates rollerskating through a hospital for fuck’s sake. Little Miss Sunshine wouldn’t stand for that shit. Glenn Close is a bundle of tough love homilies, not anything coherent. It’s these twin performances that constitute the biggest insults to the hillbilly audience. Take off the makeup, yellow your teeth and you’re halfway there to an Oscar nomination. I get the impulse to do it; god knows Glenn Close has earned a little gold man by now, and there is precedent for such a performance earning accolades. All that said, when Glenn Close went into her fucking monologue about morality through the lens of Terminators I felt bad for her, I felt bad for me, I felt bad for everyone except that asshole Ron Howard, who somehow thought including this was a smart idea. Adams and Close embarrass themselves, and they’re meant to be the emotional fulcrums.
Amy Adams’ acting is mostly wig-based.
A lot also rests on the actors portraying the main character, Gabriel Basso as adult J.D. and Owen Asztalos as child J.D. Besides both having accurately fat heads, neither distinguish themselves very well. I don’t blame them, however, because the script gives them nothing. Not a sympathetic angle, not a personality, nothing. Vance is a whiny, vacuous idiot who is at the mercy of the plot. The one throughline between time periods is that both versions whine about how much their families suck at the expense of anything else. The actors also have fat heads. Beyond that, the cast is pretty small. Haley Bennett plays the sister and I think she’s there just to trick people into thinking Jennifer Lawrence is in the movie. Vance has an Indian girlfriend who exists solely to be supportive over the phone. This film could’ve used some colorful characters, like maybe a pair of ne’erdowells driving around in a Confederate-attired car, a corrupt sheriff, maybe a farting dog. Basically if this became an extra long episode of The Dukes of Hazzard I wouldn’t complain. Your average episode of that also mounts a better explanation for economic stagnation and cultural degradation. Why did the factories leave? Why is there an explosion in drug use? It all comes down to those Duke Boys.
Having dogshit to work with, Ron Howard’s middlebrow sensibilities do the film no favors. I’m reminded of Spielberg’s Ready Player One, actually, in that both suck all the life out of a hideous yet idiosyncratic book to create a bland, flavorless mush. Like, this is horrible, but there’s no random asides about how it’s bullshit that people on welfare get to have cell phones. That’s really what I wanted to see from the adaptation, the ideology unvarnished, on display for all to see. Instead the edges are sanded down and Vance growing up to be a Republican spokesyokel is a funny aside and not the entire point of the enterprise. Don’t expect any mood or atmosphere; there’s neither beauty nor ugliness on display here. Appalachia, er, Columbus, Ohio is a distinct place so failing to make it memorable is an omission on the director’s part. Howard doesn’t give the perspective of a kid, either, despite a feint towards it in an early scene in which Vance finds a turtle with a cracked shell. There’s no sense of the innocence of youth being tarnished by the complicated lives of adults, everything is viewed omnisciently. The closest comparison I can make is that Hillbilly Elegy is an afterschool special about ma’s habit of shooting up. The similarities between this and Mr. Show’s “The Bob Lamonta Story” are uncanny. Man, if only Amy Adams expressed her love by saying “my shoes hurt”…
THX to Benjamin Sunday for this graphic.
Hillbilly Elegy is an obscenely cynical exercise: a purported Issues Movie with studiously avoids addressing any issues, a harrowing memoir of a terrifying childhood on the brink which actually chronicles a lower middle class kid’s mildly fucked up early teen years, an anthropological lifting of the veil to explore that mysterious beast known as the White Working Class which couldn’t be bothered to so much as gesture at the causes of Eastern Kentucky’s long standing deprivation. As a film it is as damp a squib as you can imagine: no imagination in the direction, a limp score of melodrama beats localized with an occasional reverbed fiddle, and camera work that looks like if you shot a nature documentary in the manner of the American version of The Office. The only solace is that it will not succeed in its quest to secure Oscars for Howard et al. In all likelihood they’ll receive a number of nominations from the equally disreputable Razzies. They deserve it.
One bag of popcorn and two stolen football cards.