“Everyone in this world is one of three kinds,” declares Mamaw (played by Glenn Close), the wise grand-matriarch of Ron Howard’s new film, Hillbilly Elegy. “A good Terminator, a bad Terminator, and neutral.” I hate to correct Mamaw, who is trying to encourage her impressionable grandson, J. D. Vance (Gabriel Basso), to follow a righteous path by invoking Arnold Schwarzenegger’s beloved action franchise. But there is no such thing as a “neutral” Terminator; those cyborg heroes exist to either protect or destroy. I cannot imagine what a neutral Terminator would do, save sit in a chair and remain forever shiny and inactive.
Mamaw is entitled to her bad movie opinions, of course. But this monologue is the kind of speechifying that rings hollow throughout Hillbilly Elegy, an adaptation of Vance’s best-selling 2016 memoir that debuts on Netflix tomorrow. When it first arrived on bookshelves, Vance’s story was celebrated as a glimpse into an oft-ignored pocket of America: the white working class of Appalachia and the Rust Belt who swung to Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Hailed as an “anger translator” and cited by Oprah Winfrey and Hillary Clinton, Vance wrote about growing up poor, living with a heroin-addicted mother, and clawing his way into Yale Law School. The book arrived at a seemingly serendipitous moment, offering a bleak but candid view of communities gutted by drug abuse and poverty.
Hillbilly Elegy the memoir has since been dissected, challenged, and eviscerated. It largely focuses on the virtues of hard work and perseverance, launching vague broadsides against the American welfare state; the author often appears uninterested in interrogating deeper systemic issues. In adapting the book, Howard and the screenwriter Vanessa Taylor have gone even further, stripping the text of anything that might feel remotely controversial or pointed. Netflix’s Hillbilly Elegy is an Oscar-friendly narrative of personal triumph in the face of great hardship, a movie designed to end with an uplifting epigraph; it is also one of the worst movies of the year. Stuffed with A-list stars and tearful monologues, it is a neutral Terminator of a film—polished yet utterly inert.
Howard, a filmmaker whose work I often enjoy, has a practiced hand with true-story movies (he directed Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man, and Rush, among many others). But those stories usually have an incredible hook at their center, whether it’s the space chaos of Apollo 13 or the bitter suffering that the Formula 1 driver Niki Lauda experienced while pursuing victory in Rush (the latter might be Howard’s most underrated accomplishment of the past two decades). But in writing Hillbilly Elegy, Vance was pitching his tale not as extraordinary, but as merely one of thousands—his journey is inspiring, but it’s part of a larger social fabric, made compelling by the author’s pronouncements of how an entire generation of Americans had been left behind.
Perhaps that ambit is too much for a two-hour movie, or maybe Howard and Taylor were less intrigued by Vance’s sociopolitical analysis. Instead, the film plucks out the cleanest Hollywood narrative, one more clear-cut than even most Terminator movies. J. D. lives with his mother, Beverly (Amy Adams), in the Ohio steel town of Middletown (though the family hails from Eastern Kentucky), and while she’s sometimes sweet and loving, she’s often violent and neglectful, struggling with addiction issues and the pressures of single motherhood. With determination and the help of his wily grandma, J. D. eventually graduates from law school and makes something of himself.
The film isn’t working with bigger ideas, so it overcompensates for its straightforward storyline by ladling on the histrionics, such as Mamaw’s pop-culture rants and Bev’s harrowing behavior (at one point, she threatens to drive her truck into oncoming traffic with J. D. in the car). Close’s performance in the film tends toward steely goofiness—dressed in a fright wig and baggy sweatshirts, she bustles around every scene cursing and yelling tough-love homilies at the camera lens. Adams’s work is unfortunately calibrated, a gross pantomime of suffering that sees her screaming dialogue to the heavens, as if pain can be understood by viewers only if it’s expressed at the highest volume.
Because J. D. is a calmer personality, the film exaggerates everything else around him. Hillbilly Elegy shows him being treated like a space alien once he enters the elite world of Yale. In one particularly mind-boggling scene, the revelation that he’s from a poor background causes stunned silence at a fancy dinner, suggesting these law academics have never met a working-class person before in their life. Anxious to prove his intellectual bona fides and ashamed of making some gross faux pas, J. D. dashes off to call his girlfriend, Usha (Freida Pinto), and consult her on which cutlery to use for which course.
As Alissa Wilkinson of Vox points out, none of this culture-clash material is so pronounced in Vance’s book. The author notes that his background was more of a curiosity to his friends at Yale, helping him stand out; it wasn’t something he shamefully hid from sight. But the adaptation cannot imagine this kind of nuance. I’m not surprised that the Hollywoodization of Hillbilly Elegy required imagined scenes of polarization to create narrative drama. The problem is that some audiences will look at such sequences and conclude that this film is offering insights into certain spheres of society. But Hillbilly Elegy is a think-piece trap; it might be tempting to view little moments as sweeping commentary, but the film’s ambitions simply aren’t that serious.
This movie could’ve succeeded as a story about human beings, not cartoons. Hillbilly Elegy is, after all, about real people who are still alive; they are named in the end credits and shown in photographs, as if to underline how carefully Close, Adams, and Basso were styled in their likeness. The props department indeed deserves praise for finding the right giant glasses to perch on Mamaw’s nose, and the perfect tangled nest for Bev’s hair. But Howard’s film is nothing more than a sensational snapshot, one that feels even less authentic than many of the think pieces that followed the release of Vance’s book in 2016. To Hollywood, J. D. is just another cookie-cutter hero, one who’s defeated the haziest of villains—adversity itself.