Just watched “Hillbilly Elegy”, the Ron Howard film based on J. D. Vance’s bestseller from 2016. It is the story of a boy from Appalachia whose upbringing was rough but who made it out of poverty and into the Ivy League. It is on Netflix. The major critics are savaging the movie. I have not read the book. But as I went through the bad reviews last week, I became curious to discover why the movie was getting ridicule and even contempt. Not for Ron Howard, though— they mostly put the blame on J.D. Vance’s source material.
Having seen the film, I think the critics were unreasonably displeased with the tone of the movie. It wasn’t dark and gritty enough for urban tastes. And poverty must be unrelentingly dark mustn’t it? I used to think that Pauline Kael, as sharp as she could be in her evaluations of most movies, had a blind spot when it came to films about the inhabitants of impoverished rural regions. Unless the POV was ironic or despairing, movies about “hillbillies” and other unsophisticated folks were given the bum’s rush by Kael. She dismissed “Places in the Heart”, for example, as sentimental nonsense, offering as evidence the opening scene of a farm family saying grace. She saw that as an unconscionable signaling that the film would be about noble rustics, because why else would Hollywood include a scene of people praying?
Here is an excerpt from Owen Gleiberman’s review. I like Gleiberman, I often disagree with him but he has a true love for movies. Reading between the lines, below, I think he liked “Hillbilly Elegy” but does not want to go all out for it lest he lose his place at the “cool kids” table. So he has to get in some snark for the two leading ladies:
“You could put it another way, of course, and say that Glenn Close and Amy Adams, in a movie like this one, are all uglied up for the their Oscar close-ups. It’s the acting-as-transformation-into-human-troll school. Except that the actors, in this case, hit true notes. They communicate the inner agony of what it feels like to be the ‘her’ in ‘It didn’t start with her.’
The book took off just as Trump took office. The movie, coming at the end of his reign, could have felt (no pun intended) like a deliverance: a true-life tale that takes the Appalachian heart of darkness and lays it bare. Except that there’s a weird, bland flaw at the center of this adaptation. Ron Howard knows how to flirt with edge, but he’s drawn, by temperament, to healing and grace, to the urgency of people who mean well. “
We get it, Owen. Healing and grace detract from the commitment to “edge”.
“Hillbilly Elegy” is not a great film, but it is a good one. I think it doesn’t focus enough on a single story. A memoir is an overview or survey of a life, it doesn’t observe Aristotle’s rules of drama. But this film could have used more of a unifying focus.Glenn Close is terrific as J. D. Vance’s “Mamaw’, Amy Adams is good as his broken mother, and both unknown actors who played J.D. as a youth and a young Yale student were excellent. I enjoyed the movie very much. The critics are wrong. More and more, I think film critics wait to see what the Big Critics say about a movie and then write their own review as a variation on that judgment. There’s not a lot of diversity of opinions among professionals. You have to go to viewers’ reviews for that.