“If you believe that hard work pays off, then you work hard; if you think it’s hard to get ahead even when you try, then why try at all? Similarly, when people do fail, this mind-set allows them to look outward. I once ran into an old acquaintance at a Middletown bar who told me that he had recently quit his job because he was sick of waking up early. I later saw him complaining on Facebook about the “Obama economy” and how it had affected his life. I don’t doubt that the Obama economy has affected many, but this man is assuredly not among them. His status in life is directly attributable to the choices he’s made, and his life will improve only through better decisions. But for him to make better choices, he needs to live in an environment that forces him to ask tough questions about himself. There is a cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society or the government, and that movement gains adherents by the day.”
Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy is very much a movie about right now. It shines on a light on the very people who put Trump in power and most likely hold out hope, some of them, that the Trump dream lives on even after the election. If you listen to the left’s version of this they are a racist white supremacist cult with swastikas tattooed on their chests. But that wouldn’t be the whole story. Someone once said that not all Trump supporters are racists but all racists are Trump supporters. This isn’t a conversation you can have on the left because we have arrived at the place where there is no looking beyond the initial accusation and accepted reality.
In his book, JD Vance seeks to explain what brought people to this place and why Trump’s rise was such a big deal. Yes, it’s populism at its best and worst because for a populist to rise they have to have someone they can blame and hate. But there are also realities that must be confronted about communities that have been left behind, forgotten and now are in the process of being erased until people like Trump come along. Pay now or pay later.
Drive across this country, as I do on occasion, and you will see a much different country than the one offered up in the New York Times and on MSNBC or even CNN now. I’m assuming many of you reading this are like me, city dwellers, who have spent much of your time inside the bubble of the left – which was working just fine until Trump came alone to pierce the surface and let a little reality back in.
I say all of this because you have to come to Hillbilly Elegy with an open mind or else don’t bother. You have to be willing to see people as people who come from a different set of circumstances than you do and see the world differently and that seems to be increasingly difficult for people on my side of the aisle to do (although frankly I don’t even know what my side of the aisle is anymore). For many, just the idea of this movie at all is offensive.
Hillbilly Elegy was, to me, genuine storytelling that featured a world we just don’t see anymore – not in movies, not on television. Brilliantly acted by an ensemble driven by Amy Adams and Glenn Close, Hillbilly proves once again that Ron Howard, an actor himself, really knows how to direct actors. But the real surprise is that it dared to tell a story about a place that is mostly verboten. He tells the story with compassion but also with hard truths, which reflects the tone of the book really well.
In some communities in rural Ohio, or Pennsylvania – the old “white working class” districts people mostly heard about in a Bernie Sanders speech – residents have nothing much left after the jobs were sent overseas. They have drugs, though. Prescription opioids and heroin, to be precise, that has ravaged many a small working class town awash in addiction and despair. What else do they have. Hillbilly Elegy is about one such family trying to live in a country that has mostly left them behind, certainly a government that has.
This is a coming of age story about a young man with a promising future. Only he doesn’t know it yet. He is stuck in the immediacy of growing up under an abusive, chaotic, mercurial mother (Amy Adams) who never found her own center of gravity. He had no choice to but to be dragged along by her from one weird boyfriend situation and one awful job situation to another. His drug addicted mother knew no other way and could not seem to help herself.
JD Vance’s story, as told through the sensitive eye of Ron Howard and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor, is about someone who gets one chance. One chance because one person believed in him – his grandmother (the astonishing Glenn Close) whose own life was wrecked by abuse and poverty but who pulled her grandson out from a much worse fate and forced him back into school to make something of himself. It’s off to the military for him and eventually, a BA from Ohio State and a graduate law degree from Yale. It is the combination of being a smart kid, and the guiding hand of his grandmother, that gives JD a chance most others do not get.
Amy Adams is ferocious as Bev, JD’s volcanic mess of a mother who slips through boyfriends and steals meds until she loses her job. She can’t keep the needle out of her arm, even if it means losing everything. Glenn Close is unrecognizable as Mamaw, the matriarch. She’s not educated herself but she realizes, somehow, the value in it. Close has become this woman who lives in another universe from the character she played in her last film, The Wife. It is a testament to her talent, her intelligence and her versatility that she can easily transition from one to the other. Just look at them side by side to see what a magnificent artist we have in Glenn Close. Two actors play JD, Owen Asztalos as the young one and Gabriel Basso in older age. Both are good as neutral figures for the mercurial women around them to bounce off of.
Storytelling has been part of the human experience since forever. It is how we shape our ideology, how we resolve our differences, how we make sense of our lives. Lately, films seem to be held to the standard that they must be a corrective for an otherwise broken culture. To show the country that as long as you cast it correctly and not offend a single millennial on Twitter you have done it all the way right.
But that doesn’t nor will it ever make for good storytelling.
Ron Howard thankfully does not condescend to the people whose story he is telling. He very much respects the subject and focuses the story mostly on the characters rather than making it a witch hunt to ferret out those with viewpoints people on the left would consider offensive.
But even still, it offers up, in its own way, a path towards a better America. Not just because it is immoral to leave communities like this behind, or worse, to dismiss them all as racists because they support the only candidate who actually SAW them, let alone promised to make their lives better, but also, because it is about walking away when staying in a place around certain people will surely take you under too.
This is a movie that can surprisingly be watched by those outside the bubble of the left. It is one great lament that our films only speak to one kind of person. That was never the intention of Hollywood or the Oscars. We seem to have created a bottleneck, which in evolutionary terms means the moment before the species becomes extinct because it has become too closed off and isolated. I feel that much of America’s film industry has bottle-necked because it leaves out millions of people on ideological grounds. Thus, I have to wonder, what is its ultimate purpose? To massage our own belief system or to do what storytellers are required to do: tell a good story regardless.
Hillbilly Elegy is a film that struck a chord with me. I guess because I know what it feels like to have to try to make sense of a life from a whirlwind of chaos growing up. I also know what it feels to not be a part of the kind of culture you eventually find yourself in. You always end up feeling like an imposter if you grew up poor, with not enough clothes or money. The sting of poverty never really goes away no matter how high a person climbs.
Joe Biden asks us all to unite now and stop seeing each other as the enemy. I would propose just trying to SEE each other at all, and recognize the humanity in all of us, even if we don’t agree. JD Vance’s memoir and Ron Howard’s film takes us to a place where we can start that process. Vance, in particular, highlights the kind of ignorant rage that can grow from people who have nothing and no future and no role models to help them. And how that can often lead to blaming others for your own failures, like “illegals” or “welfare moms.” Maybe for some people the way through is continued shunning and hatred. But all that does is widen the chasm.
It isn’t my job to change anyone’s mind. But it is the job of journalists and artists to see their way beyond their own ideology to dig deeper an uncover the truth about who we are. The book, Hillbilly Elegy does that most certainly. And the film puts it into the framework of thrilling/depressing/uplifting drama.
Slowly but surely, the best films of 2020 are finding their way to the surface. To my way of thinking, they are films that are authentic and faithful to the story they’re telling, while than schooling or lecturing people on what they SHOULD think. No film should attempt to do that ever or it isn’t film anymore – it is propaganda. A short list would include: Mank, Nomadland, Spree, One Night in Miami, Promising Young Woman, On the Rocks and yes, Hillbilly Elegy.
Even if you can’t watch it for any of the reasons I’ve just explained, Glenn Close’s performance alone is worth the trip. Without reading any of the reviews I figure there will be many who say this film makes the characters into caricatures. But I guess I personally did not see it that way, mainly because I know this world. I know these people. So much of it rang true to me.
Ultimately, it is a film, and a story, about tolerance – because to get beyond the war, we have to start seeing each other as people. We could all use a little more love, and a lot less hate, in our hearts.
“That is the real story of my lift, and that is why I wrote this book. I want people to know what it feels like to nearly give up on yourself and why you might do it. I want people to understand what happens in the lives of the poor and the psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty has on their children. I want people to understand the American Dream as my family and I encountered it. I want people to understand how upward mobility really feels. And I want people to understand something I learned only recently: that for those of us lucky enough to live the American Dream, the demons of the life we left behind continue to chase us.”