Ron Howard has a curious relationship with Americana throughout his career. Though born in Oklahoma, Howard started in show business when he was still in diapers. He’s been seen in two distinct visions American life (The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days), but those were TV shows unburdened by economic or political strife. As he transitioned into directing, he continued to tell stories about various aspects of American life and culture. He’s covered everything from the cozy days of middle-class 80s suburbia (Parenthood) to the straight-laced poise of the 60s (Apollo 13) to the desperate optimism of the Great Depression (Cinderella Man). The problem is that Howard has always done this from the outside looking in. He sees the basics and organizes it into an acceptable narrative, never fully understanding the actual experience that makes a story deeper and more effective and blinding him from the required nuance, tone and taste.
If any of those three things were well organized in J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy, Howard has apparently missed those cues in his film adaptation. Vance’s story is told in two parts: the first sees Gabriel Basso play Vance as an eager but out-of-place law student at Yale, while the second sees Owen Asztalos play Vale as a young man moving from his family’s roots deep in Kentucky to the dilapidated suburbs of Ohio. The collegiate Vance is trying to get noticed by the higher-ups of his university, until his sister (Haley Bennett) tells him their mother (Amy Adams) overdoses on heroin. As he rushes back to Ohio to help his unruly mom, he flashes back to his teen years where his family was in constant strife. While his mom popped pills, jumped between boyfriends and struggled with anger issues, Vance often relied on his grandma (Glenn Close) for support and wisdom. Now as a young man, Vance has to decide to leave his troubled family behind forever or stay with his troubled mom and lose his chance at a future of his own.
It’s hard to figure out where to start with Hillbilly Elegy because its problems frequently intersect with one another. The movie’s dramatic intentions can be lost in certain scenes that are ridiculously set-up and executed. There are plenty of methods to show someone’s drug problem hurting their daily lives, but doing so with Vance’s mom roller skating down a hospital hallway high as a kite might just reads as silly and looses any impact it might’ve possessed. As generic as it is to have the scene where the well-intentioned grandma talks about how good and bad people are in the world, it loses whatever heart it could’ve had when it uses The Terminator as its metaphor (not to mention immediately following that with a suicide attempt). These scenes cause the tone to shift to a confusing degree with no scenes helping ease the transitions between present day Vance and his flashbacks. But the movie’s core is also flawed, based on basic ideas and morals of Appalachian values that are presented as wholesome but come across as dated. The revelations of boys never walking away from a fight or shrugged acceptance of teen pregnancy are both cliche and condescending toward people in the southeast. Hillbilly Elegy thinks the bad parts of Appalachia are needed to be untouched to make the good all the better, but that hurts Vance’s journey of overcoming his past to succeed.
What also hurts is Vance being portrayed by two actors not fully up to the task. Basso (Super 8, The Kings of Summer) certainly wears Vance’s stresses of fitting in at Yale, but he can’t seem to emote anything other than confusion or stress throughout the movie. Asztalos fares a little better, holding his own with the Oscar-caliber lead actresses he works with despite coming off awkward in his scenes with everyone else. Speaking of his co-stars, Adams definitely commits to every scene she’s given with impeccable fervor. One minute she’s charismatic and commands everyone around her to move at her speed, the next she lashes out in a particularly unsettling scene where she assaults Asztalos. The problem is the overall material she has to deliver is so tainted and unfocused that it makes her efforts look futile. The only one who comes out unscathed by the material is Close, the most charismatic of the cast while still staying grounded to the environment around her. She’s mastered more complex characters before so this could feel like coasting for her, but at least she makes the bare essentials of her character worthwhile.
It’s wild that someone as experienced as Howard could execute such a blatant miscalculation. Hillbilly Elegy is condescending to its subject matter in cartoonish fashion while its sentimental efforts are lazy and forced. Even if Vance’s memoir is flawed, a better writer would rework the material into something more hopeful or smarter. Sadly, the script by Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water, Divergent) doesn’t go deeper into the reasoning behind Vance’s family trauma nor how Vance managed to leave his family for Yale in the first place. As for Howard, it’s clear his workmanlike direction is entirely dependent on the script he’s given. It’s also clear he’s been out of touch with the current state of rural America for a long time. To be fair, it’s hard to get a pulse on current values when you’re only reading them through movie pitches.
Hillbilly Elegy is now streaming on Netflix.