Director: Ron Howard
Writer: Vanessa Taylor
Cast: Amy Adams, Gabriel Basso, Glenn Close, Freida Pinto, Haley Bennett
Streaming On: Netflix
Ron Howard’s latest film, based on J.D. Vance’s best-selling memoir, tells the story of a Yale law student who reluctantly returns to his rural hometown to deal with a family emergency. His older sister, Lindsay (Haley Bennett), needs his help. Their mother Beverly (Amy Adams) has overdosed on heroin again, and J.D. (Gabriel Basso) has no choice but to risk missing a crucial internship interview to clean up her mess. His success story is on hold. His Indian girlfriend and fellow law student, Usha (Freida Pinto), worries about him. She wants to help, but he resists. Back in Ohio after years, while trying to “sort out” his mother, J.D. is haunted by flashbacks of his difficult childhood with the Vances – a multigenerational melange of poverty, drugs, wasted hearts and troubled minds. Every time he pushes ahead, his withered family has a way of pulling him back.
Watching Hillbilly Elegy was, for me, a conflicting experience. On one hand, the film is shameless Oscar-bait. Every performance is designed to win critical acclaim. Amy Adams does the substance-addict equivalent of “full retard” (before you get offended, this is an eminent Tropic Thunder term), screaming and crying and raging with admirable commitment. The venerable Glenn Close, as the grandmother “Mamaw” whose personality seems to be a slick New Yorker’s interpretation of a humane Trump voter, is so distinctly trashy that it may appear as though she were overcompensating for missing out on that Academy award for The Wife. Every melodramatic moment plays out like an entry in a period-filmmaking reel. The memoir itself (titled ‘Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis’) was intensely debated for its generalized gaze back in 2016, and its screen adaptation is at best a simplistic, Forrest-Gumpish display of poverty porn that virtually harrasses the viewer into feeling strong feelings.
I’d imagine Americans getting offended by this film the same way some of us Indians were offended by Slumdog Millionaire. The backlash it might warrant is understandable. On a cultural level, it’s a broad-brushing disaster, somewhat like an Appalachian Green Book. The American Dream is reduced to a sappy Hollywood trauma template. The anguish is performative; the village-underdog trope oozes like a stale wound. In an early scene, J.D. is seen calling Usha from the restroom of a fancy restaurant because he has no idea how to use the cutlery at the table with his potential employers. A minute later, he goes all Big-Moose on one of the snooty superwhite bosses for joking about “rednecks”. I mean, colour me Brown.
But on the other hand, as with most recent Ron Howard movies, there’s something beneath the narrative’s sociocultural awkwardness. He has a way of making bad movies feel good, and this is perhaps the most significant entry of that list. The fact is that Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir, and memoirs are emotionally skewed but fiercely personal perspectives of time. Memoirs are flawed by nature, and if they don’t directly resonate with the individualism of a viewer, they look like a selfish and wasteful account of a damning environment. I could see the sentimalism and effort dripping from every frame, but the central conflict – of a young man torn between rescuing his past and claiming his future – is universal and bereft of specificity. It is irrevocably human.
J.D. is bitter towards his mother for being reckless, for being the anchor that drags him to the ocean bed just as he is about to gasp for air. Every ambition of his is intertwined with a desire to distance himself from a shared history: he barely visits, determined to be the one that got away, inching towards a life where he can think of himself as a slumdog fairytale. But his visit slowly reveals that, if not for the sheer dysfunctionality of his shattered family, he would have never aimed for the stars. For the most part, I found myself able to look past the film’s desperately artful surface – and be shaken by J.D.’s predicament.
Of course, this is a personal reaction. Given that much of my childhood is haunted by visions of addiction and rehabilitation and marital stress, I’ve long wrestled with a sense of resentment towards the people responsible for it. I’ve explicitly been where J.D. finds himself at – having to choose between rescuing an addicted parent and an important career move. At this stage, as an adult striving to make up for lost time, I feel guilty for feeling inconvenienced at the prospect of helping them when they need it. I feel sabotaged when I am faced with the indignity of dropping everything and nursing the past. At the same time, I am also acutely aware that I took to words – to expressing myself on paper – precisely because of where I came from. Speaking was rarely an option. In a way, they made me who I am. For better or worse, I dream harder because the nightmares were longer.
Does this make me a terrible son? There’s no easy answer. But I can tell you that only those who come from families afflicted with addiction and illnesses hold the ability to examine this question. The art that arises from it is bound to be self-absorbed and needy. But what is art if not a canvas of ethnic dog-whistles? Some of us identify with the heritage of suffering, others wonder why cinema appropriates the culture of suffering. Some of us nurse a deep-rooted hillbilly elegy, others wonder why we’re such a cliche.