Early in “Hillbilly Elegy,” based on the memoir by J.D. Vance, Yale law student J.D. (Gabriel Basso, “The Kings of Summer”) is dining with partners at a white-shoe law firm, and when he mentions that he is from Ohio and Kentucky, he is greeted with a wave of side-eye and oh-so-polite condescension about his Appalachian origins. It’s a scene that might have more impact if “Hillbilly Elegy” itself weren’t so frequently condescending about the denizens of the Rust Belt.
The results play less like the exploration of a life or an evocation of a time and place and more like an informercial for J.D. Vance, who is more salt-of-the-earth than those snooty lawyers, but also manages not to fall into the traps of ignorance and poverty and addiction that befall so many of the people with whom he grew up. “Hillbilly Elegy” isn’t interested in the systems that create poverty and addiction and ignorance; it just wants to pretend that one straight white guy’s ability to rise above his surroundings means that there’s no excuse for everyone else not to have done so as well.
It’s 2011 when J.D. attends that lawyer dinner, in the hopes of getting a summer internship that will cover the costs for his third year of law school, and his meal is interrupted by a call from his older sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett, “Swallow”), telling him that their mother Bev (Amy Adams) is in the hospital after overdosing on heroin. Bev has grappled with opioids ever since losing her nurse’s license a decade earlier, and J.D. makes the drive home to try and get his mother into a rehab facility.
He’s sketchy on the details with girlfriend and classmate Usha (Freida Pinto), not knowing how she will react to his family drama, but the trip home provides the opportunity for multiple flashbacks to J.D.’s childhood, where Bev could be loving but also abusive, encouraging but rarely reliable. And when things get so bad at home that J.D. starts hanging out with a bad crowd and committing petty crimes, Bev’s mother Memaw (Glenn Close) sweeps in with the toughlove and the structure that put him back on the right path.
Why does J.D. take the right path while Bev keeps screwing up and being let off the hook by Memaw and the rest of the family? Per Memaw, it’s because Bev “just stopped trying,” which gives away this movie’s game: These people aren’t impoverished because corporate America shut down the local manufacturing industry and sent the jobs to more easily exploited overseas labor; they aren’t ignorant because Ronald Reagan and his spiritual heirs starved public education; there isn’t an opioid crisis in this country because the Sackler family got rich flooding the market with OxyContin — these poor folks just stopped trying.
And even if you put aside the politics of “Hillbilly Elegy,” you’re left with what Radha Blank, the director-writer-star of “The 40-Year-Old Version,” would call “poverty porn,” that lurid gawk into the lives of the less fortunate so that more privileged audiences can feel like they’ve experienced something genuine, whether it’s a fried bologna sandwich or the washing and reusing of plastic cutlery. If this movie had been made by someone who understands Kentucky the way Richard Linklater undertands Texas, or with the empathy for the working class that Debra Granik or Sean Baker bring to their films, that would be one thing, but this is a movie that always seems to be on the outside looking in, indicating rather than understanding.
Still, this is a Ron Howard production, so the pieces do at least fit together with ease. Legendary cinematographer Maryse Alberti aptly captures the various locations, from the leafy campuses of New Haven to the grim fluorescents of a shabby motel bathroom, while editor James Wilcox allows the audience to pinball backwards and forwards through J.D.’s life without losing the thread.
Based on the photos of the real-life Memaw that appear under the closing credits, Glenn Close has been made to look just like her, but the prosthetics and the fried hair and the bifocals do the bulk of the work, reducing the actress to a lot of lip-pursing, eye-bugging, and colorful swearing. Amy Adams, on the other hand, goes full tilt boogie in her portrayal of a woman trapped by circumstance and addiction, and she finds so few moments between catatonia and going-to-11 that it’s a performance of sheer artifice. That said, certain awards-giving bodies do like to honor acting that they can weigh and measure and quantify, and this overblown level of thespianism often has its rewards, just not the aesthetic kind.
The book got popular at around the time that The New York Times was sending platoons of reporters into diners across the country in the hopes of understanding the “real” American voter, and the people in those diners have genuine stories to tell. With “Hillbilly Elegy,” all we get is the fried bologna sandwich.