We are all heroes of our own story. And if we’re white and Southern, some of us are happy to throw in a little Tennessee Williams-styled “martyr” to the tale.
Netflix and Ron Howard serve up a lot of both in bringing J.D. Vance’s “up by my redneck bootstraps” memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” to the screen.
For some viewers, it’s 116 minutes of triggering — abused childhood, addicted parenting, impulse control, bad decisions, self-destructive politics, ingrained failure and violence.
Others — conservatives, one suspects — will grab its “poverty porn” as evidence that “anyone can make it in America,” when of course Vance’s lurid autobiography is the exception that proves the rule, anecdote as “evidence.”
But astute viewers with some connection to its geography and class could have a moment of empathy over Vance’s broad caricature of Kentucky/Ohio “poor white trash.” Oh. THIS is what Black and Hispanic filmgoers feels when they see entire culture painted with a stereotypical brush.
I’d say Howard, who grew up on “The Andy Griffith Show,” should know better. But he’s second generation Hollywood. What would he know about the real Appalachia?
Still, it’s easy to see what he and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (“The Shape of Water”) saw in the material. This is a far rougher “The Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio” or “The Glass Castle.” The narrator’s point of view is male, the toxic parenting here is matriarchal.
And the leading ladies could see the Oscar bait in dressing down and cussing up. Amy Adams, Glenn Close and Haley Bennett let go and embrace the working class struggle of generations of the Kentucky diaspora who didn’t win LBJ’s “war on poverty” and realize his “Great Society,” even after moving to Ohio.
Howard’s film only gives us a cursory look at where Vance’s “people” came from, a prologue in Jackson County, Kentucky where a teenage J.D. (Owen Asztalos) visits the family homestead, gets a beating from the locals and an earful from his foul mouthed Mamaw (Close) and fouler-mouthed Momma (Adams) that offers a glimpse of his history.
His family was uprooted when granny got pregnant at 13 and she and her new husband (Papaw, played later by Bo Hopkins) fled to factory work in Middletown, Ohio.
The first of the film’s two timelines follows teenaged J.D. as he struggles to better himself as his hellion nurse-mother lurches from one bad relationship, one addiction to another.
Martyrdom point one — Mom cannot control her temper, her language or her appetites. Her kids bear the scars.
The other timeline is J.D. (Gabriel Basso) as an adult, finishing up Yale Law after stints in the Marines and an undergrad degree from Ohio State. He’s got an Indian girlfriend (Freida Pinto) from law school, and slim chance of landing a plum internship because he’s gauche and unsophisticated. A mixer/dinner with potential law firms prompts a panicked phone call to Usha (Pinto).
“What am I supposed to do with all these f—–g forks?”
And heaven forbid some smug to-the-manner-born Eastern lawyer drop the word “redneck” into conversation. Mom and Mawaw aren’t the only ones with anger management issues.
Martyrdom point two, “class” and not being raised with it matters. All those teenaged “Can I watch ‘Meet the Press'” pleas (said no fourteen year-old EVER) didn’t give him the polish to succeed. He had to grab it with his own two hands.
“Hillbilly Elegy” teeters back and forth between timelines, giving Adams at her frumpiest plenty of chances to go manic and martyred — “I never had a life where I wasn’t ‘thinking about the kids!” –and Close lots of chances to drawl through Southern-fried insults.
“Wouldn’t spit on her ass if her guts were on fire.”
Vance and Howard depict a childhood (late ’90s) where the kid’s entire environment pointed to a dead end. Violent, bickering neighbors — stoner, vandalism-prone peers and her mother always distracted by some new crisis, some new man or some fresh variation of “dependency.”
Everything will come to a head with an overdose, just as J.D. reaches his make-or-break Yale moment.
Even the story’s grace notes, the noble “salt of the Earth” traits attached to Vance’s family, are stereotypes — standing in tribute when a funeral cortege passes by.
“We’re hill people, honey. We respect our dead.”
In performance, the actresses never quite cross over into country-fied camp. But Adams and Close flirt with it. Bennett, as J.D.’s long-suffering older-sister, comes off as the most real. Former child actor Basso (“Super 8”) may have relied too much on the real Vance for his performance — passive, flashes of genetic (the film implies) rage, uncharismatic.
Howard doesn’t make awful films, and as somebody who spent much of my earlier life in Appalachia, I’m not inclined to write this problematic portrayal off entirely.
But self-satisfied people on both ends of the political spectrum will see what they want to in this story, and that’s not a compliment. The smug liberals who declare “There’s no talking to/helping THOSE people” and the smirking conservatives who grab onto “There’s no such THING as ‘white privilege'” are all feasting on sloppy, simplistic, stereotype-stained storytelling.
Perhaps this is all Howard could have gotten out of this best-seller. But his “Hillbilly Elegy” is cinematic comfort food for the prejudiced.
MPA Rating: R for language throughout, drug content and some violence
Cast: Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Gabriel Basso, Haley Bennett, Freida Pinto and Owen Asztalos
Credits: Directed by Ron Howard, script by Vanessa Taylor based on the memoir by J.D. Vance. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:57