There’s much to take issue with here, so take your pick: The script, written by Vanessa Taylor (Shape of Water) is full of cliched narration (much of it pulled from the book itself), the performances are somehow both soulless and overdone, the structure is confusing and clunky. But most egregious is the obvious marketing ploy trying to sell this film as a vehicle for some of our most talented actresses. The promotional still from Netflix puts Amy Adams and Glenn Close front and centre, implying that Hillbilly Elegy is in some way about their characters. It’s not. Hillbilly Elegy is yet another film about a man who strives for greatness at the expense of every single woman in his life.
Having never read the book the movie is based on, I can only speak to the 117 minutes of boredom I experienced earlier this month. The following isn’t a commentary on Vance the man, or his memoir, but rather the character of J.D. (Gabriel Basso) as imagined by Howard, who spends most of the movie feeling sorry for himself as we retread the many ways his sister, grandmother, and mother have sacrificed for his happiness.
In a better movie, all of this might add up to some kind of commentary on gender norms, or the disparity inherent in who gets to grasp at the few opportunities available in these communities. But Hillbilly Elegy seems unable, or unwilling, to go there. Instead, it takes J.D.’s story at face value: A man overcoming all odds by virtue of his gigantic intellect, heaving himself out of poverty as the people around him claw his ankles, trying to — *extreme Pacino voice* — pull him back in. Howard seems to be making the argument that in America, anyone can make it if you really try, an idea that’s appealing to the only ones it really speaks to: white men.
Hillbilly Elegy kicks off with a young J.D. riding his bike past rusted out cars and dilapidated sheds — it’s summer, a season the Vance family spends in their ancestral seat of Breathitt County, KY. Mamaw (Close) and Papaw (Bo Hopkins) moved away in the 1950s, seeking the industrial bounty of Middletown, OH. By 1997, when the movie begins, the factory has closed down, leaving only drugs, crime, and despair in its wake. And yet, the Kentucky values have stayed with the family, who see themselves as proud descendants of hill people.
Fast-forward 14 years, and an adult J.D. is now attending Yale Law School. In the middle of interview week, a period where law students meet with firms for potential internships, J.D. gets a call from his sister, Lindsay (Haley Bennet): Their mother, Bev (Amy Adams) has overdosed on heroin and is in the hospital. Overwhelmed with three kids, work, and her own life, Lindsay tells J.D. she needs his help — can he come to Middletown?
J.D. is torn: Does he stay and maybe get a job at his dream firm after attending a bougie Ivy League school, or does he go and relieve his sister from having to take care of their mother again? In the end, he kind of does both, sacrificing only two days of his new life to head back home. J.D. travels to Middletown, does the bare minimum, and then drives through the night to make his interview, which the readers are left to assume he aces. This makes sense because in the world of Hillbilly Elegy, only women face the consequences of their actions.
Women get one shot at success. Boys get the benefit of the doubt. Over the course of this movie, J.D. fucks up a lot. He steals a calculator. He and his bonehead friends break into a factory and destroy hinges. He loses his temper and insults the partner at a law firm he wants a job offer from. He very nearly misses his interview. And yet, it all works out because of course it does.
Not so for Mamaw, Bev and Lindsay. From the very start, the movie seems to make the argument that women are destined for sacrifice by virtue of their anatomy. They get pregnant young and forego their dreams so their sons may thrive. The pattern begins with Mamaw, who we learn ran off at 13 and gave birth to Bev and her sister shortly thereafter.
The gender divide becomes crystal clear in what may be the only interesting scene in the entire movie. It takes place in J.D.’s youth; the whole family is gathered in the kitchen, only to learn that Bev has been fired from yet another job. (The layout is crucial here: Teenage Lindsay is cooking a fried baloney sandwich for her brother, who is encouraged to sit at the table and finish his math homework while the women tend to everything else.)
“You can’t have a goddamn hissy every time you have an off day,” Mamaw says in response to her daughter’s unemployment. “You gotta think about these kids.”
“What do you think I’ve been thinking about since I was 18 years old, huh?” Bev spits back. “Never had a life where I wasn’t thinking about the kids.”
When Lindsay scoffs, Bev looks at her with scorn. “It isn’t easy, alright? Just wait until you get pregnant,” she says. “You think you’re special? That’s just what happens to girls.” J.D. watches passively.
In another life, Bev, salutatorian of her high school class, could have followed J.D.’s path. She might have gone to college, or left Ohio, or enjoyed a stable and committed romantic relationship. Instead, she got pregnant with Lindsay and suffered through a grueling series of jobs, a string of bad boyfriends, and a pain pill addiction. As a result, her relationship with her kids is poisoned with resentment and self-loathing. Her past doesn’t excuse her violent and negligent behaviour, but does take a stab at explaining it. And of those two kids, who do you think gets the short end of the stick?
When Bev becomes completely unbearable during his teen years, J.D. is able to seek shelter with Mamaw, who, through tough love and Terminator comparisons, makes sure that he reaches his full potential. Lindsay, meanwhile, is forgotten. Hillbilly Elegy only focuses on her through the lens of her relationship to J.D., which is a shame because Bennet’s performance is the only credible one in the film. Unlike Adams and Close, she sounds and feels like a real person, rather than a caricature designed to win an Oscar. Throughout the film, I found myself wishing Howard had improved on the source material and chosen to tell her story instead.
Like all the women in this movie, Lindsay is repeatedly called on to pick up the pieces. She puts dinner on the table, deals with Bev’s highs and lows, and works full time at a shoe store. And still, when she dares to ask her brother for help, he acts as if this is the height of inconvenience. Worse, the movie takes his side. We’re supposed to feel sorry for him.
You could make the argument that this is his story, told from his perspective. But the problem isn’t just with J.D., the flawed narrator. It’s with Hillbilly Elegy’s inability to recognize that this one man’s so-called exceptional rags-to-riches tale isn’t accessible to all. He stands on the shoulders of the women in his life — the ones who handed him the bootstraps that he then pulled himself up by.
And it’s not as if things change once J.D. leaves his hometown. Even his colleague girlfriend, Usha (Frieda Pinto) exists in this movie only as his cheerleader, the kind of girl he can call when he needs to freak out about which fork to use at dinner, or to talk him through the long drive — as in hours! — back to New Haven. The fact that the film doesn’t underscore the irony of a white man in America moaning to his second-generation Indian girlfriend, whose father immigrated with nothing and still managed to send his daughter to law school, about privilege is yet another glaring oversight. Yes, the odds are stacked against J.D. He’s the first in his family to attend college, let alone law school, and has to work 10 times as hard as many of his peers, while working three jobs to pay for it all. But he’s still a white man in America. Ultimately there are more doors open for him than for any woman, and especially women of color.
But there’s no self-awareness here, or subtext. Hillbilly Elegy is as navel-gazing as J.D. himself, unable to see beyond the superficial plight of one man, who ends up with everything and still is left wanting more.