Edwin Arnaudin: Back in 2016 when J.D. Vance’s memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, was published, it seemed like everyone besides me was reading it — including you! What did you think of the book, both on its own terms and its adaptability to the screen?
Bruce Steele: The book is a paradox. It’s one man’s attempt to explain the mindset of an entire culture — poverty-hobbled Appalachia — but it’s almost entirely anecdotal, as if the particular stories of Vance’s dysfunctional family explained everything from the opioid epidemic to Trumpism. It’s full of good stories and smart insights, but it’s not journalism. It’s a memoir. This specificity, in the guise of universality, is what offended a lot of Appalachian people who share Vance’s concern for the culture he grew up in but don’t share his exact experiences. A Hillbilly Elegy documentary might have enlarged on Vance’s work, but a narrative film can’t help but narrow it.
Edwin: In the age of the docu-series, it is a bit odd that a nonfiction approach wasn’t taken — including by the suddenly documentary-centric Ron Howard, who seems a poor choice to direct this material in narrative form. Sure, the guy got his start playing Opie Taylor in the sub-Appalachian town of Mayberry, and Rush (2013) and Solo (2018) are among his best and most exciting films, but he’s firmly back in awards-pandering mode here, albeit without the quasi-excitement of A Beautiful Mind. Did you find any part of this film successful?
Bruce: I liked the casting of J.D. in both his early teen self (Owen Asztalos) and law school “present” (Gabriel Basso, The Kings of Summer). Both young actors were quite good, and Howard gets points for not trying to prettify his protagonist. But I doubt that anyone who hasn’t read the books will understand the boy’s divided loyalties between small-town Ohio, where his mother lived, and Kentucky hill country, where his “people” still resided, much less his drive to differentiate himself from his roots. As opioid addiction dramas go — J.D. has to rush home from Yale to deal with the latest overdose by his mother, Bev (Amy Adams) — I’d rank this one below Beautiful Boy since I don’t think Howard ever gets into Bev’s head. Did you hate it less than Ben Is Back?
Edwin: You promised never to mention that abomination again! But no, Hillbilly Elegy isn’t that obvious and unimaginative, though I would use those words to describe Basso — the year’s most vanilla leading man. Hardly anything in the “present” is engaging, but some appeal lies in flashbacks via chubby teen J.D. getting into trouble and the mama bear tenacity of his salty Mamaw (Glenn Close). The makeup and wardrobe employed to make Close look like a “real Appalachian grandma” are pretty atrocious, and she’s playing a cliché, but she’s also by far the film’s most interesting character.
Bruce: Close faded in and out of credibility for me. When she’s in full “mama bear” mode, lecturing young J.D., she’s pretty compelling. But Close overplays simpler scenes and even reaction shots, flirting with parody. Adams’ performance reminded me of her Junebug debut, which I’ve always thought was overwrought pandering. I’ve loved her since, but she never seemed to connect with Bev. The real woman, in the memoir, is selfish, devious and hardheaded, but Adams (and probably Howard) wants her to be likable. On top of that, the movie’s structure — compressing the “present day” into a few days — means we never get to see Bev evolve. Her story is resolved with a title card.
Edwin: And it’s established with even less. There’s some dialogue about Bev getting hooked on pain pills while working at the hospital, but she’s so poorly developed that I had difficulty buying J.D.’s marathon road trip from Yale to rescue her, especially since it puts his budding legal career — presumably his ultimate “escape” goal — at risk. Conversely, Haley Bennett’s humanity turns J.D.’s long-suffering big sister, Lindsay, into a real person, though along with The Devil All the Time, it’s been a bad year for Appalachian-set films starring Bennett. Throw 2019’s snake church eye-roller Them That Follow and the awful Out of the Furnace and Big Stone Gap just before it, and I can’t help but wonder why it’s still so difficult to make a good modern narrative film about this region and its people.
Bruce: I think the answer is that non-Appalachian filmmakers are too focused on mountain people’s “otherness.” They see more of a region, which they want to capture in broad strokes, than a people, who are in fact are complex and not so easily boiled down. You’re right about Lindsay — she is the key who could have unlocked this story. Juggling her children and job and drug-addicted mother, she captures the fullness of a disadvantaged life. Mamaw provides glimpses of her own complicated story in quick flashbacks, but Close isn’t permitted to really dig into that back story. Even J.D. — whose stint in the Marines is glossed over, even though it was the ticket to his future — seems pared down. Hillbilly Elegy is a movie full of events but slim on fully realized characters. Do you think it will clean up in awards season nonetheless?
Edwin: Considering its current 30% aggregate score on Rotten Tomatoes, that seems unlikely. The comparably bland and problematic Green Book (which is sitting at 77%) had the advantage of strong theatrical word-of-mouth on its way to winning Best Picture, and I’ll be curious to see how audiences respond to Hillbilly Elegy once it hits Netflix. But beyond probable Supporting Actress nods for perpetual Oscar bridesmaids Close and/or Adams, I don’t think this is the film that critics and industry organizations will want to honor in such a volatile sociopolitical year. It touches on topics that affect many U.S. citizens, but compared with the far more potent and thoughtful Da 5 Bloods and The Trial of the Chicago 7, Howard’s film feels like a misguided tweet. Do you foresee a different future?
Bruce: I think your assessment is spot on, although I’d hate to see Adams lauded for a role that’s far from her best work. I’m afraid the movie will be as divisive as the memoir, with some people appreciative of its (meager) efforts to address Appalachian poverty and the opioid crisis and others finding it thin and clichéd. I think it leaves a lot on the table, but I can’t dismiss it completely. It has its moments and is at least worth a post-screening discussion — like this one. I’ll give it 2.5 stars.
Edwin: A discussion of its numerous shortcomings, but a discussion nonetheless. I’ll give this adaptation 1.5 stars and will stay on the lookout for a film (narrative or documentary) that respectfully and insightfully portrays modern Appalachia.
Available to stream via Netflix