The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Hillbilly Elegy’ is almost laughably bad — if it weren’t so melodramatic

Owen Asztalos, left, and Amy Adams in “Hillbilly Elegy.” (Lacey Terrell/Netflix)
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(1.5 stars)

‘Hillbilly Elegy,” Ron Howard’s mystifying film adaptation of J.D. Vance’s best-selling 2016 memoir of escape from a hardscrabble childhood in Middletown, Ohio, features an early scene in rural Kentucky, where the character of J.D., in voice-over, tells us he was always happiest, and where his family’s Appalachian roots were. The protagonist, played in childhood by Owen Asztalos, finds a turtle with a cracked shell, fending off another boy who wants to kill the animal. It can heal itself, J.D. tells the kid.

That glaringly obvious metaphor of resilience and survival is the first and only instance of clarity in a story (adapted from Vance’s book by Vanessa Taylor) that is painted with a brush that seems both narrowly specific and overly broad. J.D.’s circumstances — an early life of emotional abuse by an addict mother (Amy Adams) and rescue in the form of education at Ohio State University and Yale Law School — are simultaneously held up as unique to him and, arguably, indicative of larger cultural traits.

From one side of its mouth, the film tries to suggest that the values J.D. was imbued with — perseverance, self-sufficiency — fueled his success. (The author is a venture capitalist.) And yet those same values don’t seem to have saved many in his family — or, frankly, the larger Rust Belt community. From the other side of its mouth, the film hints that J.D. is who he is because he’s something of an anomaly: a chubby, ambitious, fact-spewing nerd who’d rather watch a news show on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal than sit through a cable broadcast of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” with his grandmother for the umpteenth time.

‘Hillbilly Elegy’ made J.D. Vance the voice of the Rust Belt. But does he want that job?

The story jumps back and forth, confusingly so at times, between the late 1990s and 2011, when the now-grown J.D. (Gabriel Basso) is called back to Ohio from New Haven, Conn., where he lives with his gorgeous and sophisticated girlfriend (Freida Pinto) and is a highly sought-after law student, applying for summer internships with prestigious firms. His mother, it seems, has had a heroin overdose.


That O.D., however factual, is merely one of many melodramatic turns taken by this tale, which lurches from one calamity — about which no real conclusions can be drawn, let alone emotional resonance — to another. J.D.’s mother, Bev, whom Adams plays as a bloated, bleary-eyed and blowzy hot mess, starts stealing pain pills at her hospital nursing job, leading to her firing. She threatens to crash a car, with J.D. in it, leading to her detainment by the police and catalyzing her son to run around with delinquents. She creates a scene in the middle of the street, screaming, and with blood dripping from her wrist. Despite having been an excellent student and high school salutatorian — despite putting herself through nursing school while working as a single mom — Bev can’t catch a break. Adams’s performance, which comes reeking of Oscar bait, is riveting yet as exhausting for us as it seems to have been for J.D. She’s just having a “down month,” she tells her son, after he shows up at her hospital bedside.

The other showboat acting comes courtesy of a nearly unrecognizable Glenn Close as Bev’s mother and the clan’s foul-mouthed matriarch-with-a-heart-of-gold, Mamaw. We first meet her, looking like a character from a “Saturday Night Live” skit set in a trailer park, and with an ever-present cigarette dangling from her pinched lips, as she’s giving the middle finger to her daughter: “Perch and swivel,” Mamaw snarls, in the first of many colorful vulgarities. At one point, Mamaw sets fire — literally — to her husband, Papaw (Bo Hopkins), when he comes home drunk yet again.

So much for Appalachian values.

Mamaw does, in fairness, buy her grandson the expensive calculator he needs for school, after J.D. has tried to shoplift one. And she does become the boy’s guardian after Bev has proved incapable of raising him. But she’s no paragon of virtue.

J.D.’s family isn’t perfect, he tells us, but they made him who he is. Okay, but how, exactly — other than how we are all products of our pasts, whatever they may be? That’s as pat as can be.

Vance’s book was seized on by both conservatives — for its pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps portrait of the self-made man — and liberals, who held it up as a magnifying glass on the disaffected working-class White communities who voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in 2016. To some degree, Howard’s version of “Elegy” — whose title signifies a lament for a dying culture — avoids both of those interpretations, scrupulously sidestepping any real reasons for the curdling of this particular slice of the American apple pie. “Don’t make us your excuse,” says J.D.’s older sister (Haley Bennett), after her brother almost misses a job interview to take care of his mother.

“Hillbilly Elegy” eschews theories — more prominent in the book — that might help explain the opioid epidemic and the seemingly unbreakable cycle of poverty that defies simplistic solutions (yet might cause people to seek deliverance from a political outsider). The problem is that in doing so, the movie leaves us, like J.D.’s family, with only a mounting pile of baloney excuses for bad behavior.

R. At the Angelika Film Center Mosaic and Cinema Arts Theatre; available Nov. 24 on Netflix. Contains crude language throughout, drug use and some violence. 116 minutes.