Ron Howard’s film version of the J. D. Vance bestseller Hillbilly Elegy owes surprisingly little to Mayberry RFD or The Andy Griffith Show, which loom large in Howard’s acting career. Instead, movie auteur Howard adapts Hillbilly Elegy according to the pampered ignorance of his Hollywood upbringing. The film shows shallow — fake — empathy with the Appalachian background that begins Vance’s humble brag about leaving backwoods hollers and winding up at Yale University — the foundation of his Millennial bona fides as an expert on American class issues in the wake of Obama’s caste divide.
Class issues are what make this auto-biopic insulting. Opie, that is, Howard, seems insensitive to personal facts of upward mobility. Vance (played by husky Gabriel Basso) goes to Yale after serving a tour of duty in Iraq, hooks up with a beautiful Indian co-ed (Freida Pinto, who tastily resembles cooking show star Padma Lakshmi), then looks back on his crude, slatternly family with semi-affection.
Affection is mostly shown to Vance himself, through the film’s awkward dependence on flashbacks-within-flashbacks (from Jackson, Ky., to Middletown, Ohio), that depict his struggle more melodramatically than that of the fortunate, ungrateful child in Stella Dallas. But not even Stella Dallas herself (Barbara Stanwyck’s most affecting film role in King Vidor’s classic 1938 weepie) was as spectacular a loser as Vance’s drug-addicted mother Bev (Amy Adams), who is the epitome of underclass victimization.
Vance’s memories pivot around Bev, a high-school salutatorian who stumbled into the pitfalls of being female in patriarchal America — teenage motherhood, abusive men, economic inequality, and what looks like a case of manic depression that Howard dramatizes as lighthearted independence when Bev roller-skates through a hospital and loses her position as a registered nurse. (Remember how vividly authentic Adams was in David O. Russell’s Boston Southie film The Fighter?)
It’s bizarre to watch how Vance’s up-from-poverty self-justification begins piously (“Let us hold on to our faith”) and then ignores not only the relevance of white Southern Christian orthodoxy but also the insights of William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale (1951). The film’s secular class message relies on slotting the white underclass while pitying the opioid crisis, for topical relevance (adding the decadent allure of Breaking Bad and The Paper Chase to Millennial elitism). What Buckley called “the superstitions of academic freedom,” when explaining his early experience of Ivy League agnosticism, is replaced by superstitions of the Hollywood liberal elite (millionaires straining to appear hardscrabble).
Howard forgets the simple yet often complex illustration of everyday moral dilemmas that played out around Opie; he mocks the systemic snottiness of upper-class institutions and sides with Vance’s own heroic perseverance. Vance — the meek, chubby kid — becomes a mild-mannered guy incapable of picking up on social clues. Vance’s trite references to tribalism (“Your people will have your back. That’s our code”) are spouted but unfelt. The subtext shows a callow youth sustained by strong women who have suffered and sacrificed on his behalf (especially Glenn Close as indomitable Mamaw during Vance’s teen years). Yet the film seems uncurious about the fate that befalls working-class men who go from deplorables to chumps and are then dismissed.
Hillbilly Elegy’s caste division illustrates the delusions of success that run deeper than superficial class division. I joked about Vance-versus-Opie, but the real disaster is that Howard displays no ability to convey common experience. (Does a child actor who directed Eat My Dust really have to show us a stream of urine filling a specimen cup?) Howard poses as a populist filmmaker (Splash, Parenthood, Apollo 13, Far and Away, A Beautiful Mind), but he’s a Hollywood elite who doesn’t know basic humanity — the insight that the Brahmin Satyajit Ray showed in Aparajito (the second film in Ray’s Apu Trilogy), which is the greatest film ever made about how education separates us spiritually — and more deeply than social station. Ray’s Apu struggled to regain spiritual connection to his family heritage (the issue that contemporary film culture decries), but Vance becomes a narcissistic Horatio Alger, Hollywood’s acceptance conferred upon him as a just reward.