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Film Critic Harlan Jacobson Reviews Ron Howard's "Hillbilly Elegy"

Harlan Jacobson for WBGO News

Hillbilly Elegy came a callin’ on Netflix in time for Thanksgiving to remind us about how complicated the notion of family really is. Our film critic, Harlan Jacobson, takes us to Kentucky for more.

HJ: JD Vance’s memoir, Hillbilly Elegy memoir arrived in 2016 as part of a flotilla of non-fiction books, including Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas in 2004, and Arlie Hochshild’s  Strangers in their Own Land in 2016, set in Bayou Louisiana, that addressed the reduced and diminished importance of America’s working class, as a way of foregrounding why since Reagan it had started voting against its own economic interests.

The film adaptation of  Hillbilly Elegy, from director Ron Howard and writer Vanessa Taylor who wrote  the 2018 Oscar-winning  The Shape of Water, a fairy tale ode to love and difference or girls and fishes (take your pick), was of course planned as a major release taking aim at the Oscars. Howard’s  Hillbilly Elegy puts an anecdotal and human face on what amounts to the elites’ national puzzlement over the White revolt that had its roots in Reagan’s distrust of government. Which picked up speed during the Republican revolt in the Clinton era and later the Tea Party backlash during Bush the Little. It is what became the white dragon of the one term Trump mal-administration. In the book, JD Vance traces his life from Jackson County, Ky, where his family failed in 1997, across the Ohio River at Cincinnati up to Middletown, Ohio. Howard and Taylor compress and edit their way through Vance’s memoir to concentrate on the adolescent crisis point in Vance’s life, when he is torn between down home family and uptown Yale, between what most people think of as the war between white trash and the educated middle-class.

It was Nixon, who stole the southern democrats from the party in 1968 and merged them with the rest of the country’s urban union men. Both camps had been FDR Democrats starting in the Depression, waiting patiently for help from the government. The film begins with a mournful elegy reminiscent of James Agee’s Knoxville, Summer 1915, which opened Agee’s A Death in the Family, his fictional portrait of similar folks during the Depression, which Agee had brilliantly documented in his travels with photographer Walker Evans in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Agee’s Appalachians trusted Roosevelt, while Vance demonstrates with a vengeance why the people who need it the most don’t trust Washington.

Howard and Taylor construct a timeline for Gabriel Basso as Vance that hops back and forth in his odyssey between his law firm prospects and  an Indian-American girlfriend at Yale Law School to his failing country folk family back in Middletown. What is AWOL in the film from Vance’s book is his escape by enlistment in the Army, and the role it still plays, along with education, as an effective institution in forging a common American consciousness and offering a ladder up and out into professional life at all levels. Not the point of the film, but a key part of Vance’s memoir.

The film’s portrait of transplanted holler people—the men with no resources or tools to survive and prosper, and Vance’s mother played by Amy Adams in a heroin spiral -- is instead the syllable with the accent and its most compelling footage. Not surprisingly in a business still looking to at least recoup its investment, Howard has gone for the melodrama of a child facing the question of abandoning the generation that raised him to fail like them.

As the young Vance, Owen Asztalos pulls on you like a bear cub, while as law student Vance, Basso is quite winning. Adams and Glenn Close as Mamaw, a grandma taskmaster who only knows when push comes to shove, are each making another run at the Oscars—pushed back now till April. Judging by the marketing, Basso/Vance takes a back seat to the dueling mamas. I’m not convinced the academy will remember this Hillbilly Elegy, which simply roots for a white trash kid to abandon his people and cross over into multi-culturalville, particularly one that includes country club lawyers at lunch. I don’t really want to hate on Hillbilly Elegy; it shows courage to remind the Ivy League kids protesting the cultural appropriation of Taco Night at the student cafeteria that Ohio lives matter, too.

And I’m HJ

Harlan Jacobson became WBGO's film critic in 2010, covering the international film scene for the "WBGO Journal," with reports from film festivals around the world about films arriving on the scene in the greater New York-New Jersey metroplex.