Ron Howard’s new movie, based on the bestselling memoir by JD Vance, is a solemn true story of self-betterment from tough beginnings, like the “personal statement” that an American teenager would put on an application to an Ivy League college.
It’s not quite an “elegy” because the “hillbilly” world – which is shown as painful, raucous but emotionally authentic – is supposed to be very much alive, as is the hero’s connection with it. And he’s not about to forget his roots. But then again, this hillbilly world (the world of the hill country of Jackson, Kentucky) is something the hero doesn’t have much personal connection with. It’s more the world of his grandparents and great-grandparents. He goes back to their home for family reunions but was born and raised in the less picturesque, equally disadvantaged world of Middletown, Ohio.
Owen Asztalos plays JD, a smart, lonely, pudgy kid struggling in a dysfunctional family. His mom Bev (Amy Adams) is a former nurse who is now a drug addict and in a state of open war with her own mother, Mamaw, who is a mean and crotchety old woman, with a violent history of her own (which Howard soft-pedals in flashback to establish her as the film’s plain-speaking moral centre). But Mamaw is fiercely loyal to her kin, a great believer in not snitching to the cops no matter how awful the domestic violence, and willing to take JD into her own house, away from his useless druggie mother and his no-good teen friends, to make sure he gets on with his studies: those very studies that would one day take JD to college, to the US Marine Corps, to Yale Law School and to that privileged position from which he composed his autobiography. (The grownup JD is played by Gabriel Basso.)
The book’s subtitle is A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Howard erases the critical sense of “crisis” that made the original book a success in political circles. The deadbeat world JD escaped is now regarded more sentimentally.
Mamaw is played with very overripe overacting, big glasses, cigarettes and frizzy old-lady hair by Glenn Close, who prefaces every quaintly foul-mouthed outburst (“Kiss my ruby-red asshole!”) with an expression of stunned disbelief at the latest act of laziness or stupidity from her daughter or grandson. I’m not at all sure I really believed in Close in this role, or quite why she needed all those prosthetics, but I did laugh at her acidly unimpressed attitude to JD’s reverence for Native Americans: “They’re called Indians. And they’re not magic, just because they don’t have microwaves.”
I’m not sure I entirely believed in Adams either, however earnest her performance undoubtedly is. Bev’s sudden and irresponsible druggie impulse to go rollerskating through the corridors of the hospital that employs her – though very possibly taken from a real anecdote – looks odd and unmotivated on screen. (The inevitable home-movie footage over the closing credits shows how eerily similar to the originals Close and Adams have been made to look.) This is a well-meant story of someone pulling himself up by his bootstraps, with some help from his grandma. But it feels contrived and self-conscious.
• Hillbilly Elegy is in cinemas from 11 November and on Netflix from 24 November.