Readers Write In #312: Why Hillbilly Elegy may not be such a misfire after all

Posted on December 13, 2020

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(by Madan Mohan)

There are films lately where the critical consensus is so different from my own impressions that I am left to question whether I am going bonkers. Or whether the critics are. Or if this is just life happening, me getting older and forming perceptions based on my own experiences and worldview rather than depending on somebody else’s framework. One such is Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy.

I actually should have echoed the collective meh issued by critics on this one. I shuddered when I read Howard was going to direct the Hollywood adaptation of JD Vance’s autobiographical non fiction account of life in the Rust Belt/Appalachia. My shudder came from a place of having read the book and thus feeling deeply skeptical about a Howard take on it. Howard is a Hollywood veteran with a neat take on everything, be it schizophrenia and game theory (Beautiful Mind) or Formula One (Rush). A take so neat that you could fill up the background score cues with several albums worth of Kenny G and not miss a beat. Those are both good films, mind you.

But as I watched the film, I realised that the Ron Howard treatment is exactly what works for Hillbilly Elegy.

Yes, as the critics complain, Howard converts a sprawling account of the myriad problems of life in run down Rust Belt and Appalachian towns into the personal underdog story of JD. Perhaps, though, there is little else you can fit into a two hour movie. More to the point, this perspective distils the essence of Hillbilly Elegy such that you’d better understand it.

The sprawl of Hillbilly Elegy (the book) is also its problem. It’s too vast in its scope. It narrates JD and his family’s struggles with extreme dysfunction and blows it up into a larger story of what ails the Midwest. It criticizes politicians and the hillbillies (as well as the current favourite punching bag – the coastal elites) alike in the same breath. At the end of it all, you are left with a book that you find highly informative and also poignant in many places and yet can’t figure out quite what the point of it is. I mean, why is JD a libertarian (who also studied in Yale and works in the media) if inter-generational poverty and a lack of economic opportunities are the reigning issues of the Rust Belt? The book is made interesting by these contradictions but is also dragged down by them.

By cutting out the politics but keeping the culture, Howard gives us a stirring portrait of dysfunction, addiction, despair and, yet, resilience. JD’s mother (played by Amy Adams) just can’t get a break. She gets fired from jobs and in turn fires her boyfriends or husbands or what have you. And the once obedient and chubby child that JD was is starting to morph into a teenage vandal. It is at this point that his grandmother (Glenn Close) or Mamaw as he calls her steps in and takes charge of the situation, cutting out all the B.S from his life and impressing on him that if he has to have a chance at all to make it, to make something of his life, then he must shape up. Cut to the present and JD lands an interview for an internship at a prestigious law firm that will in turn fund his sophomore year at Yale.

Uh, that’s it. The relative modesty of the destination brings to mind 1983’s surprise hit Flashdance (also spurned by the critics, albeit with a lot more justification). Flashdance ends with the protagonist acing an audition that will grant her the opportunity to perform at a Pittsburgh Conservatory of Dance. That’s it. Not quite the starry-eyed dreams Hollywood generally conjures up for us. Not like walking a tightrope between the Twin Towers, you know. This may explain the critical meh – all this hand-wringing for an internship, really?

But hey, getting to continue his education is a pretty big deal for JD. Because it’s his ticket out of the mess that his life has been up to this point and the mess that Middletown, Ohio (JD’s hometown) is. As he tells his mother after putting her up in a motel, just as he is about to leave on a long drive to the law firm all the way from Ohio, he is not saving anyone as long as he is stuck in Middletown. He needs to leave in order to “make her happy”. In other words, JD must join the coastal elite who make him feel like a fish out of water at a dinner early in the film, if he is to save his Midwestern family.

The love-hate relationship between these polarized tribes of America summed up without any overt political references. It’s there if you mine the context. If you don’t, it remains a poignant tale of a boy rising up to make something of himself in the face of a difficult upbringing.

It is also (and I wonder that the critics missed this!) the story of how a tough old lady (Mamaw) teaches little JD to be a man in the best sense of the word. By getting his lazy ass off the couch, getting rid of friends who mean nothing but trouble, by topping his class, by working jobs on the side to make ends meet and by helping her in any way he can. With his grandfather passing away when JD is still a kid, it is the women in his life – Mamaw, mother and his big sister – who all step up to help him get a shot at making it in life. Because – and this is the implicit inference – they have, at some level, failed and are resigned to their fate.

Is a tale of three women striving to make a success out of a proud little hillbilly kid the best, the most awesome storyline? Not really. But is it well worth exploring? Surely. Not quite the misfire then that you may have been told it is.