Howard: Hillbilly Elegy (2020)
You might not think that Ron Howard was the most obvious choice to direct Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance’s account of growing up in suburban Ohio and rural Kentucky, but in some ways that seems to be the point. Since becoming a New York Times bestseller in 2016, Vance’s memoir has become (in)famous for offering a libertarian hedge fund manager’s perspective on poverty – not that different, perhaps, from mainstream Hollywod’s perspective on class, but stark enough that the producers probably felt compelled to call in Howard to put a warmer and fuzzier liberal spin on it all. Like the memoir, the film unfolds along two distinct timelines, which grow almost comically dissociated from each other as they proceed. In the first, we’re presented with Vance’s childhood in suburban Ohio, where he grew up with his mother Bev (Amy Adams) and his grandmother Mamaw (Glenn Close). In the second, Vance is a Yale graduate, played by Gabriel Basso rather than Owen Asztolos, and is returning to Ohio to take stock of his upbringing on the cusp of securing a prestigious summer clerkship.
The first part of the film, set in the past, is easily the most compelling, so it makes sense that this is where Howard begins, anchoring our introduction to the Vance family in a hyper-saturated paean to “the hill county of Jackson, Kentucky,” presented in these early scenes as a source of fecundity and fertility. We follow Vance as he explores woods and rivers, and develops a respect for the bounty of nature, while an early family photograph is superimposed over similar shots stretching all the way back through the twentieth century, suffusing the Vance clan with a romantic sprawl that is as expansive across time as it is restricted in space. When Vance later claims that his family are Hillbilly Royalty, we believe it, since these opening moments imbue them with a real grandeur, presenting them in a splendid state of nature that’s suddenly compromised when they return to the pernicious welfare state that rules over suburban Ohio, where the majority of the story actually unfolds.
Here, we’re introduced to the first strand of the film, while follows Vance as he comes to terms with his mother Bev’s drug addiction. For the most part, his relationship with Bev is presented in fairly academic terms, as a case study in the way that the welfare state (supposedly) enables dependency. In fact, the welfare state is presented as a form of addiction in and of itself, forcing Vance to become an enabler in turn, as he becomes a part of Bev’s welfare apparatus despite himself. The tipping-point comes when he’s forced to provide her with a urine sample so that she can keep her job – a decision that has ripple effects across the whole family, precipitating a bout of pneumonia that hospitalises and almost kills Mamaw, while sending Vance into a shame spiral that gets him caught up with the wrong crowd, and almost sent to prison before he pulls out at the last minute from a vandalising spree. For all its good intentions, then, the welfare state is presented here as an avenue to the two institutions – prison and hospital – it is meant to keep people away from.
In stark contrast to Bev, Hillbilly Elegy presents Mamaw as an embodiment of the libertarian state – a source of tough love who is determined not to make the same mistakes with her grandson that she made with her daughter. Vance’s rags-to-riches story, and his Yale acceptance, is attributed entirely to Mamaw’s dogged efforts to hold him to account at every opportunity, from the way she punishes him after he steals a calculator to school, to her line in the sand about his choice of friends, to her refusal to provide too much praise when he starts to top his classes, lest he become too complacent to ever escape of Ohio. On paper, this is a pretty one-dimensional relationship, but Close’s commitment to the role gives it a real emotional gravity, however much we might question its ideological motivations. Close can really amp up the intensity when the part demands it, and her short appearances here, which reach the height of Fatal Attraction or Damages, are the only points where the film feels truly vital, since she’s the only actor to really embrace the operatic intensity – and, to some extent, the operatic inanity – of Vance’s vision of what it means to overcome poverty.
If the film just remained with Vance’s childhood, it would simply be a weird fusion of conservative nostalgia piece and conservative message piece, but it really starts to go astray when we shift to the present, where Vance is on the cusp of a major clerkship. Howard is clearly is not confident in his ability to marry this present day content, which appears to take place after Vance’s shift to a right-wing worldview, with the privations of his childhood, since the film immediately splinters in a tortuous flashback structure , as if doubting its own ability to provide the continuity between Vance’s upbringing and his ideology in a coherent way. Ironically, Vance seems like more of a bigot than his hillbilly peers, despite having “civilised” himself, and the film seems to know it, drenching the present day scenes with subliminal assurances that he’s not small-minded. At times, these scenes reminded me of the opening act of Taken, since Howard goes to the same extreme effort as Pierre Morel to remind us that his protagonist doesn’t have an issue with black folk, escorting us through one performatively polite interaction with black service staff after another. Howard also makes a big deal of Vance’s romance with Indian-American Usha Chilkuri, played by Freida Pinto, who would go on to clerk for Brett Kavanaugh, but is presented as a liberalising and leavening presence here.
During these present-day scenes the weird incoherence of Vance’s really outlook comes to the fore. On the one hand, as a libertarian with hard-right leanings, he can’t give too much credence to the systemic social factors responsible for his family’s issues, but on the other hand he can’t be too hard on his family, especially since this is a film partly aimed at a conservative audience for whom family is the bedrock of society. As a result, Vance is caught in a weird solipsistic space where his upbringing is simply his individual and interpersonal struggle, and can’t be anything more, which is perhaps why his family feel so oddly elided from the message he is trying to share about them, and the ways he has monetised and brokered his experience of them for the sake of the mythic self-realisation that’s on display here. In many ways, I was more impressed by Vance’s sister Lindsay, played by Haley Bennett, since for all his blathering, she just gets on with the job and genuinely pulls herself up by the bootstraps. Not only does she weather the full brunt of Bev and Mamaw (nobody’s putting it all on the line for her to get into Yale), but she secures a job at a shoe store and raises a family of her own – and she does it without having to reject the entire welfare state in the process.
If Vance’s inability to completely acknowledge his family makes the whole film feel slightly displaced, then his inability to acknowledge the systemic issues that shaped his family is downright surreal. These issues are impossible to ignore within the film’s narrative – it’s impossible to watch the hospital scenes without reflecting on public healthcare, or the addiction scenes without reflecting on systemic poverty in America – meaning that Howard has to erode Vance’s character until there’s no reactivity left at all, or until he’s nothing but a shell for libertarian ideology, since only the most vacant ideologue would be able to refrain from reacting to the social issues that the film never properly permits us to acknowledge. As a result, present-day Vance sleepwalks his way through the film, inadvertently becoming an emblem for the enforced oblivion of conservative American politics, and its growing dissociation from reality during the Trump era. Any reactivity to social reality is totally prohibited, relegating Vance to a solipsistic space where his only point of reference is himself.
If the film can never fully accept the experience of Vance’s relatives, and can’t accept the social factors that shape those relationships, then it falters most in its ability to process situations that relate to gender. For all that Vance faults his mother, and for all that the film caricatures his grandmother, the unspoken trauma here is that women are doing all of the caretaking, largely because men have left them no other option. While Vance’s Popaw, played by Bo Hopkins, is present for the early scenes, it’s clear that Mamaw has done most of the work, while we never hear what happened to Vance’s father, who clearly left all of the parenting to Bev. Time and again, Vance reflects on how he has chosen to take a different path from Bev, but there’s a big difference in being the prodigal son (nobody takes the same pains to ensure that his sister gets an education) and finding yourself pregnant at eighteen with no support structure, no fatherly involvement and Southern stigma up against your door. As with poverty, the film refuses to process gender as either a systemic or individual experience – Vance can’t or won’t recognise his mother and grandmother as part of a distinct class, while also erasing their specific experiences as women – meaning that once again the entire issue of gender is reduced to a projection of Vance’s own libertarian self-realisation.
For all that it purports to provoke, then, Hillbilly Elegy trots out a familiar conservative screed – that the welfare state is undermining male dignity – as Vance appears to find in conservative politics the paternal assurance that was lacking from his own childhood. Rather than recognising or applauding the specific and systemic struggles of his mother and grandmother as impoverished women, they become instances of an ideology of self-betterment whose only point of reference is himself. This, in turn, means that Vance has to sand off all the contingencies that got him where he is – for, example the way that his education was validated over both his sister’s and his mother’s, who was valedictorian too – with the result that Hillbilly Elegy doesn’t even have the fiery rhetoric of your regular right-wing manifesto.
Instead, this is libertarian fodder at its limpest and dullest – plodding, trite, and sanctimonious in ways that bring it full circle with the blandest of Hollywood cues. Call it a genuinely libertarian cinema – one protagonist, nothing outside the protagonist, and no conflict that can’t be smoothed away with self-realisation, which is to say no real conflict at all, as much as Close tries to inject it into her role, which remains genuinely compelling on its own terms. Once again, I was most impressed by Haley, Vance’s sister, who does appear to have genuinely pulled herself up by the bootstraps, without needing to evsicerate where she comes from. Even or especially as she’s reduced to just another casualty of Vance’s self-realisation here, she feels like the character who has achieved the most. But the film could never acknowledge this, since it’s ultimately an act of oblivion that doesn’t quite deserve to be consigned to oblivion, but doesn’t leave a whole lot to take away from it in the end either.
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