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Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy

What an inspiring poster for such an inspiring and true story

dir: Ron Howard


When a movie calls itself Hillbilly Elegy, I at least expect it to have some hillbillies in it. Some twangs of a banjo at least. There’s not much in this two-hour memoir about a kid growing up in the suburbs of Middletown, Ohio in the 90s that justifies such a title, but it hardly matters.

No hillbillies were harmed in the making of this moviefilm. Probably because they couldn’t find any, which is a shame.

J.D. Vance, through the success of his book of the same name as this movie, somehow became the voice of poor White America, most keenly during the last dire 4 years where he’d be trotted out on cable news and interview programs to explain why white poor people support political leaders who clearly despise them and do nothing to help them or anyone other than their own corporate interests. For whatever reason he was seen as offering some keen insight into the plight of the poor and disadvantaged, but only if they were white. It’s a heavy mantle to put on anyone’s shoulders, but it’s one he volunteered for and encouraged.

The purpose of the book wasn’t just to say ‘being poor sucks, and here is how I survived my family’, it was ‘being poor sucks, being a poor hillbilly sucks, and making bad choices means you’re fucked, but if you only make Good Choices and take Personal Responsibility for everything, then good things come to those who wait.” There was a sociological and political aspect to the book; a set of arguments that walk right up to the line of actually explaining something important (being the connection between the economic decline of these areas with jobs moving overseas, to vast unemployment, to the pipeline between legal opioid over-prescription and addiction). But he totally stuffs up the dismount.

There are important conversations to be had about people becoming disconnected from the community around them, having or at least feeling like they have limited agency in their lives, about the vast impact that casual decisions at corporate headquarters have over the lives of millions of people, and losing hope, giving in to despair. But you’re not going to hear anything new on the topic here.

Because all J.D. has are these bog standard conservative boilerplate arguments (pull yourself up from your bootstraps, work hard, be heteronormative, get married and have 2.4, pay the mortgage, be aspirational and consume, consume, consume) that ignore the fact that these “jobs” disappeared overseas a long time ago because businesses noticed they didn’t like paying people a living wage, and successive governments did what they could to destroy the union movement. Opposing unions and the minimum wage have been cornerstone conservative arguments for decades, and suppressing wages and eliminating secure jobs is what they do in practice, across the States. But you’re not going to hear this hack say anything about that.

It's not a stretch to point out that Vance is a Republican, and soon plans to run for the Senate as a Republican. He can be counted on to do exactly as much for his “poor” brethren and sistren of the Appalachia as any other Republican ie. absolutely fuck all. But he’ll be a senator, so hooray for him and his bootstraps.

None of the political or sociological stuff, none of the arguments Vance makes in the book, most of the resentments he has against other poor people who he feels like they had it easier than he and his, make it into the movie. The “best” moment from the book, where he describes his political awakening, being his resentment towards someone on welfare and food stamps who got to eat steak when he himself was working for peanuts and barely eating at all, doesn’t make it into the movie. Ron Howard, wisely or otherwise, reduces the scope of the story to be just about J.D., his drug addict mother Bev (Amy Adams) and his nasty old coot of a grandmother, Mamaw (Glenn Close).

And it’s also mostly about how even when you get out, they try to drag you back down again. Even when you get out, those who you left behind view you with resentment and envy, always mockingly referring to the fact that you went to Yale, and mock you for being an over-educated piece of shit.

It’s pretty paranoid stuff, but it’s his story, so who am I to disagree with what happened? And it is mostly his story. J.D. is played by a surly teenager in the 90s bits (Owen Asztalos), and Gabriel Basso as the grownup, who both do really well with difficult parts. The film intercuts the “present” of 2011 where J.D., studying at Yale, is desperately trying to get into a summer internship program through interviews with powerful jerks, and the 1990s, where a lot of bad shit happened to his family. The event throwing his future into jeopardy is a call from his sister Lindsay (Hayley Bennett, who was so good in a movie I saw recently called Swallow) saying that their mum has ODed on heroin.

So. After a dinner where he was meant to wow the available jerks with tales of his Appalachian heritage, which sound awfully tenuous, he gets to drop a “we don’t use that word” when one of the assembled turds says something about rednecks.

Wait, so hillbilly is okay, but redneck is too far? At least he didn’t say “only we get to call each other that word.”

The centerpiece of the dinner scene is meant to be J.D.’s discomfort and confusion in the face of multiple instances of cutlery. Like, man, what hardships you faced in your struggles to get to the top, hey? But then, in the midst of the insults from the sneering elites who he nonetheless wants to be adopted by and their evil forks and knives comes the call from his sister, compelling him to drive the 10 hours back to Middletown, Ohio, from Yale in Connecticut.

It wouldn’t be that clear at this point, but you also have to accept that J.D., who had before this point gotten into the Marines and served in Afghanistan, is more freaked out by the snobbery of rich people than he is by fighting in an actual war.

That social anxiety carries through, because part of the push and pull of the book and this film is a fierce protectiveness of and immense embarrassment provoked by J.D.’s family. Even a hint of a word spoken about his mother by anyone results in fury and fighting, despite the fact that no one in this flick treats J.D. worse than Bev. She is, independent of any of the things you can argue about addiction or personal responsibility or intergenerational trauma, an asshole. I’m using the American spelling because I don’t think the Australian spelling really covers it in this instance.

She is a mean, chaotic asshole who lashes out at her son and daughter, and blames all her miseries upon them. Amy Adams is a tremendous actor, and she puts her skills in the service of bringing to life an absolute monster of a shitty parent. It’s almost like in bringing her to screen like this, and in the memoir, that J.D. wants us to see just how bad it was, but also, you know, she wasn’t that bad, y’know?

Fucking hell, though. She falls and hits rock bottom fucking hard. I don’t know if the scene with the roller skates in the ICU actually happened, but what a way to go out. Because I’m such a mental health expert on things psychiatric, apart from the addiction to pain killers, there seems to be something more at play here, like borderline personality disorder, but the movie doesn’t have time to really explore who she is, just the threat she represents to the people around her. The glib explanation is that she saw the abuses of her mother and father towards each other, culminating in her mother setting fire to her father, and then boasting about it for the rest of her life. There’s no doubt that she is a monster, but then the question is whether she’s sympathetic or not.

No, she is not. And the grandma J.D. adores and idolises is just as much of an asshole, but she is at least an amusing one. There’s nothing about Bev’s abuses or hideous chaos that is amusing.

Glenn Close gets most of the press in terms of performances here, and they’re well deserved. I haven’t seen a transformation as complete and terrifying since Charlize Theron played Aileen Wuornos in Monster. Curly wig, a weird bodysuit, constantly smoking and swearing, what’s not to like? The movie states outright that it is Mamaw’s despicable hygiene but eventual devotion to her grandson that saves him and sets him on the path to greatness. So much for your bootstraps doing all the work, J.D. At least one person believed in you / abused you enough to force you towards greatness.

The movie tells us how to feel at too many points, with the gloopiest, most overbearing string sections on the soundtrack, but it doesn’t always tell us exactly what we should think. The most important theme that is shown to us, but not over-emphasised, is the way in which “family” is a curse, and doing the right thing by your family can cause more harm down the track than intended. It’s shown to us, right at the moment after the mother has been beating the shit out of her son, and terrorising him, and some lady who’s just trying to help protect the boy, when the cops ask what happened, it’s a moment where, at least in theory, things could have gone a different way. J.D. elects to get his mum off the hook and lies rather than throw her to the wolves, which could have resulted in rehab, and a chance for his mum not to be such an abusive asshole. And Mamaw and Papaw tell him he did the right thing, because family blah blah and family etc etc.

The line drawn between that moment and where Bev ends up in 2011, broke, heroin addicted and homeless, is probably too neat, too unfair, but this isn’t a film to watch with complex themes and uncomfortable answers, weaving together intricate strands of storytelling to give us a tapestry of family life through the Appalachian lens: it’s about a guy and some stuff that happened, and he got to walk away.

Good on him. Critics have been savage about the flick, mostly because all the freighted baggage that could have been there was excised, leaving a fairly conventional family drama. Plenty of people could watch this and relate through their own experiences, their own family dynamics, their own intergenerational legacies of lies and myths and traumas. There’s nothing new or profound here, but does there really need to be? I felt for all of them, honestly, all of them, especially Lindsay, who stayed behind, raised a family, and had to deal with Bev all the time, and not only after one phone call during a Yale dinner. Where’s her parade? Where are the think pieces about her voting habits and beliefs about vaccines or QAnon probably?

I’m not pretending it’s a great film, though. There really isn’t a sense of place, as in, it’s hard to understand a lot of what they take for granted that the audience would understand. At the beginning, after getting back from a family reunion, and the only time the movie spends in Appalachia, Bev and her kids go to one house, Mamaw goes to another, and Papaw goes to a third. Huh? They’re that poor but they were in three houses? The flick also doesn’t give us enough about the grandmother and grandfather who fled the hillbillies for a better life and apparently never found it. Their failures flow down to the next generations, we’re meant to think, but it’s not clear why.

The greatest frustration in these kinds of experiences, both in terms of to the people they happened to, and to the ones watching the story, is that there aren’t solutions, or sometimes even temporary fixes. In the film the tension becomes “will J.D. get to the interview in time, or will his mother’s antics stop him from achieving his ambitions of becoming a hedge fund manager?” The reality is there are no fixes for longstanding, long term irresolvable problems, and we know it, and that isn’t satisfying. Mental health issues aren’t fixed after a dramatic conversation and the string section swelling; addiction isn’t overcome with a profound realisation and a hug; it’s a day to day struggle that goes on over years and years. This story knows that, but still wraps up everything with a neat and tidy little bow. We are meant to be happy for JD that he and his girlfriend, and eventual wife Usha (Freida Pinto) that they are happily married with kids, and that Lindsay and her family are okay, and that Bev has been sober for six years.

And you know what? I am happy that they’re okay. I hope they keep being okay. J.D.’s insights into his own life might be trite or even wrong-headed, but fucking hell, with all that’s happened this year, what kind of an asshole wants harm to come to anyone? The most we get from the end is relief, and that’s okay, sometimes it’s enough. We have all our own sagas to deal with, don’t we? And most of us don’t have the luxury of spinning our family problems into socioeconomic think pieces and extrapolations explaining how this or that president or prime minister personally screwed over our families and made things worse, and thus we are not judged as harshly.

Hillbilly Elegy – try not to cringe to death when Mamaw delivers the awful line about “hill folk respecting their dead”. It’s terrible! And there’s no banjo playing at all!

6 times those who were poor and become rich seem to hate the poor even more out of 10
“Everyone in this world is one of three kinds: a good terminator, a bad terminator and neutral.” – Mamaw, there ain’t no neutral terminators. Wait, there ain’t no good ones neither! – Hillbilly Elegy.