Ron Howard's Hillbilly Elegy, starring Amy Adams and Glenn Close and streaming on Netflix, is a respectable, well-made film about a dysfunctional family. Most of the reviews have been poisonous.
The Rotten Tomatoes website gave Hillbilly Elegy only a 26% favorable rating from critics as of Dec. 30, but an 86% favorable rating from audience members. There are often discrepancies on Rotten Tomatoes between critical and audience reactions to films, but seldom one this wide. The negative reviews have split into two camps. The first takes Howard and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor to task for missing the essence of J.D. Vance's original book. Richard Brody in The New Yorker blasted the film's "soupy, impersonal manipulation of memory and experience, void of the burrs that attach them to the world at large." The second condemns the source material itself. Writing in the Washington Post, Appalachia natives Lanora Johnson and W. Carson Byrd accused Vance—who grew up in Middletown, Ohio, but has deep family roots in Jackson, Kentucky—of creating a self-serving narrative filled with
right-wing talking points.
"To mark Vance's journey as unique and hard-won, Hillbilly Elegy doesn't grapple with the structural obstacles and economic exploitation existing for decades in Appalachia," Johnson and Byrd wrote. "Instead, he calls his peers back home lazy and fatalistic, and ignores those who go out of their way to make it possible for other people to succeed despite not having the opportunities themselves."
Lisa R. Pruitt, Martin Luther King Jr. Professor of Law at the University of California-Davis, took a different view in her article for the online newspaper, The Conversation. Pruitt loathes Vance's book for the same reasons Johnson and Byrd do. "Vance explicitly blames laziness as the culprit of those left behind, with only cursory attention to the impact of policies that encouraged the offshoring of manufacturing jobs and weakening of the social safety net," she writes.
However, Pruitt found much to praise in the movie version. "The film leaves Vance's politics aside and instead focuses on three generations worth of Vance family saga," she wrote. "That means the positive potential I saw in the book is at the heart of the film."
I find myself siding with Pruitt, though I don't hate the book as she does. Because I approached the film of Hillbilly Elegy backwards—I saw it before I read the book—I appreciated its value as entertainment before I saw how it elided and diluted certain aspects of the book. Also, I'm from Ohio myself—born in the glassmaking town of Lancaster, a two-hour drive from Vance's Middletown, and raised in the nearby village of Sugar Grove. Sugar Grove is well-known to geologists as the place where the glaciers stopped. Everything to the north and west of it is midwestern prairie. Everything to the south and east is Appalachia.
My response to Vance's book is complicated. I have some similarities with Vance, but more differences. I am a full generation older than he, and I left Ohio before he was born. We both grew up in or near mid-sized Ohio towns in which one company was the main employer (Armco Steel in his case, Anchor Hocking Glass in mine). Middletown, in Vance's description, is filled with recent transplants—whites from Appalachia and blacks from the deep South. Lancaster is one of the oldest towns in Ohio, and most families in the area—including mine—have been there since almost its founding.
Vance is an engaging writer, and his tale of how he surmounted the instability and abuse of his childhood and youth is deeply moving. This is another major difference between Vance and me: my parents were happily married for 53 years, and they provided a stable, loving home for their four children. My father worked three jobs when my sisters and I were small; his main job was as a rural letter carrier with a 60-mile route. He also planted an acre with corn, beans, potatoes, and tomatoes. (My sisters and I helped my father plant potatoes; I thought my back would give out after half an hour.) My mother, after nearly twenty years away from nursing to raise her children, went back to work so there would be money for her children's higher education. My sister Stephanie was the first member of my family to receive a four-year degree; I was the second. My sisters and I
have always striven to live up to the example our parents set, and my greatest sorrows have come from knowing when I have failed to do so.
My parents taught their children early about hard work and personal responsibility, and Vance's praise of those qualities resonate strongly with me. His animadversions on his Middletown neighbors I find much harder to take. "You can walk through a town where 30 percent of the young men work fewer than twenty hours a week and find not a single person aware of his own laziness," he writes at one point. Vance hastens to add that it is "too easy" to blame the problem of underemployment on laziness, and that plant closures have much to do with it. "But whatever the reason, the rhetoric of hard work conflicts with the reality on the ground," he writes. Meanwhile, it is the word "laziness" that lingers.
Not that Lancaster and Sugar Grove didn't have their share of shiftless people, but they didn't comprise 30 percent of the population. I knew of horribly poor families there. Their problems were manifold, but laziness wasn't at the top of the list for most of them. The situation was much more like that described by Brian Alexander in his 2017 book, Glass House. Like me, Alexander is a native Lancastrian (for the record, I have never met him), and the theme of Glass House is how a series of leveraged buyouts, starting with Carl Icahn in the 1980s, left Anchor Hocking a shell of itself, devastating Lancaster and its citizens in the bargain.
The miasma of financial deals that closed one of Anchor Hocking's Lancaster plants, reduced employment at the second, weakened the union, and plundered the employees' pension fund is long and bewildering, and Alexander presents it as such. As Alexander reported in an Atlantic article that appeared the same time as the book, Anchor Hocking employees couldn't even keep track of who owned the company at any given time. His point was that the chain of transactions left workers demoralized and Lancaster a center of Ohio's opioid crisis.
At the beginning of the book, Alexander quotes a young worker at Anchor Hocking, a fourth-generation employee of the company. "The people who own the place don't give a shit about us," the worker says. Alexander could not agree more. "Having helped wreck small towns, some conservatives were now telling the people in them to pack up and leave," he writes at the end of Glass House. "The 'vicious, selfish culture' didn't come from small towns or even from Hollywood or 'the media.' It came from a thirty-five-year program of exploitation and value destruction in the service of 'returns.' America had fetishized cash until it became synonymous with virtue."
This is a long preamble to my point about the film of Hillbilly Elegy. As an adaptation of the book, it's a bust. Howard includes footage of boarded-up storefronts, dilapidated houses and junk cars rusting on lawns, but nothing resembling even a cursory analysis of the problems of Appalachia. To do that, he would have had to make a miniseries or a multi-part documentary.
However, as a straightforward drama of a young man succeeding despite poverty and his mother's addictions, Howard's Hillbilly Elegy is persuasive and entertaining. That's not to say it's perfect. Howard literally grew up on television, and his has always been a TV sensibility. He likes things tied up neatly at the end, with a flourish of uplift. His best films have always been historical dramas in which he builds suspense despite a preordained happy ending; Apollo 13 and Frost/Nixon are among the most riveting American films of the last thirty years. He is on shakier ground when the factual and emotional content of his films grows tangled. A Beautiful Mind, the film for which Howard won his Oscar, has many imaginative directorial touches and a fine lead performance by Russell Crowe as mathematician John
Forbes Nash, but it suffers because Howard chose to omit the messier details of Nash's life and personality.
Hillbilly Elegy falls somewhere in between. Howard reaches irritably for uplift at the end of the film, which Vance pointedly avoided doing at the end of the book. But in portraying the anger and emotional confusion of the young Vance—played as a boy by Owen Asztalos and a young man by Gabriel Basso—the film is involving and often moving. We feel for him as his mother Beverly (Adams) drags him from house to house, in thrall to whatever boyfriend or drug she's hooked on that month, and later as Beverly's crazed behavior threatens his chances to get hired at a prestigious law firm. This is at the core of why the Rotten Tomatoes audience reaction score was so much higher than that of the critics. As a tale of human striving and aspiration, and of family love that endures despite all, Howard's film works very well. It is not a political film, just a human one.
Hillbilly Elegy presents the terror of Vance's early life, recreating some of the most harrowing episodes of the book. We see Beverly's drug-fueled rage against the boy J.D., forcing him to run to a neighbor's house for help; we see her demanding a cup of his urine because she can't pass the routine urine test at her workplace. Howard and Taylor tweak some of the book's major scenes. At one point in the book, J.D.'s "Mamaw" Bonnie (Close) buys him an expensive calculator for his advanced math class, with a stern warning that he had better pass the course. Howard and Taylor turn this into a fierce argument between J.D. and Mamaw, beginning with his attempt to shoplift the calculator. Mamaw can only be described as ferocious; you will need to read the book or see the movie to get the full picture. But her love for her family is equally ferocious, and—as both the
book and movie attest—the main reason J.D. was able to rise above the turmoil of his early life. Howard may fail in capturing the essence of being a Kentuckian in Middletown, but in portraying how the members of this family both wound and nurture each other, he succeeds.
Vance makes generalizations about Appalachian folk that seem questionable to me, and which have enraged many readers. I'm not sure if he or anyone else has the right to make such generalizations, but his at least are ameliorated by tenderness. That tenderness in turn softens my feelings about him and his book. Vance speaks with love of his Mamaw; of his older sister Lindsay, who virtually acted as his mother in Beverly's absence; and even of Beverly, whom he sees as the victim of forces beyond her control. Toward the end of the book, Vance writes with special concern about a Kentucky teenager named Brian whose life is very much the same as his was. "I believe we hillbillies are the toughest goddamned people on this earth," he writes. "But are we tough enough to do what needs to be done to help a kid like Brian?...Public policy can help, but there is no government
that can fix these problems for us."
Vance may be right, but I believe that government can and should do a lot more than it does. Like Brian Alexander, I believe government at least can do more to prevent predatory business practices that hollow out towns and individual lives. Those lives are far more complex and valuable than pundits and legislators have assumed, and they take those lives for granted, not only at their own peril, but America's. That is something Vance, Alexander, and I can certainly agree on.
As for Ron Howard? He makes movies. He never pretended to do anything else. As movies go, Hillbilly Elegy is a good one.