Hollywood knows two registers when it comes to the white working class (WWC): sentimentalizing and condescending. WWCs are either cute, neighborly, and folksy, or they constitute a tawdry, alien life form. There are 130 million WWCs in our country, and yet nobody in Hollywood has the slightest grasp of them. With the plucky rural folk, it’s always about hearts overflowing with kindness or sinks overflowing with dirty dishes. Their veins surge with either the American dream or opioids.
Ron Howard’s career got rolling in one WWC cliché — Mayberry, on The Andy Griffith Show — and now he’s traveled a great distance to indulge another, the Middletown, Ohio, recalled so memorably and with such wounded pride by J. D. Vance in his 2016 memoir Hillbilly Elegy.
Howard’s movie adaptation for Netflix recounts the events of Vance’s book but lacks the feel, the personality. So much of its power was in its authorial voice, as was the case with Frank McCourt’s 1996 memoir Angela’s Ashes, which was poorly adapted by Alan Parker in a 1999 film. Hillbilly Elegy the movie has much in common with Parker’s film: It’s an Appalachian Angela’s Ashes. If Vance’s book was a page-turner with a message, Howard’s film is just one damn thing after another: fights, screaming matches, drug sprees, shoplifting episodes, police interactions. It gets to be unintentionally comic at times.
Amy Adams is having herself entirely too much fun wallowing in white-trash tropes as she plays Vance’s irresponsible mom Bev, who tells us early on how she “got knocked up at 13.” Her performance is the equivalent of minstrelsy for white folk. The film’s saving grace, though, is Glenn Close, who as “Mamaw,” Vance’s grandmother, utterly transforms herself. Close, a child of the Connecticut plutocracy, deserves an Oscar for disappearing into the part of a nasty, abrasive, cantankerous figure, a woman with steel-wool hair and a tobacco throat who is nevertheless as tough as an old rope — the rope with which young J.D. (blandly portrayed by Gabriel Basso) climbs out of poverty and into a place at Ohio State University, followed by Yale Law School.
This is, naturally, an American-dream story (and Howard, in his typical on-the-nose fashion, makes sure this is announced in the opening seconds, via Vanessa Taylor’s artless screenplay). But the film comes across as an outsider’s caricature of people they don’t actually understand. Vance’s book was the opposite: unquestionably an insider’s story, combining gruesomely evocative detail with a dry, matter-of-fact tone, and uplifted by its pleasing bildungsroman structure. Vance didn’t ask for sympathy, he earned it. When he casually noted, for instance, how his mother nearly killed them both with a crazed high-speed traffic stunt or his grandmother once set her husband on fire while he slept in his own urine on a couch, the book had the pull of a Stephen King gothic. And yet Vance’s tone was not disbelief but identification: This is who we are, he said, even from the vantage point of someone who has left most of this behind.
That Vance spoke for a forgotten class, the left-behinds of globalization, became apparent shortly after the book was published. Many early readers (notably Rod Dreher and then I) started to consider Vance’s lens a useful tool for observing the skyrocketing popularity of Donald Trump in rural America on the eve of the Republican convention in 2016, though Trump was not mentioned in the book. What happens when, as manufacturing jobs go overseas, a large swath of Americans feel abandoned and even scorned by bicoastal urban types of both parties?
You might think some of this would have made it into Howard’s film, but it really doesn’t. Hollywood has a tendency to inject politics into stories where it’s unneeded or unwelcome, but the film would have been well served by a sense that its sordid events have a meaning other than how they appear on the surface. I don’t think Howard quite registers how angry a town like the one Vance grew up in feels with . . . Greenwich, Conn., millionaire elites like Ron Howard. Howard has more of an affinity for Middle America than most of his colleagues, and it’s admirable that he tried to reach out, but it’s been a long time since he was a little boy in Oklahoma, and he no longer has much of a feel for left-behind America.
What the film boils down to is 60 seconds or less of Mamaw’s colorful catalogue of sick burns, the backwoods rival to the Dowager Countess’s acerbic putdowns in Downton Abbey: “You’re dumb as a bag of hair,” “Get out! ’fore I cancel your birth certificate,” “I don’t care ya hate me, I ain’t in it for popularity,” “Don’t you come back or I’ll run you over with my car,” “If you got a problem with that, you can talk to the barrel of my gun.” My favorite though, has to be this one: “You know what’s interestin’ about the Poles? They like to bury their dead with their asses stickin’ out of the ground. That way they got a place to park their bikes.”