Appalachia is a region that has an image on the world stage that is coloured by stereotype. Poor white people. Bootlegging, moonshining, drug running, and everything that leaps to mind when you think of the movie Deliverance. It is, of course, more than that. There are good people there and culture that has a deep respect for family and loyalty.
Left behind in recent years as the industry that once drove the region gives way to resources being imported, and jobs drying up. There’s a vast amount of interesting societal issues at play in the region, and one that I am sure is fascinating to read about in the book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Written in 2016 by JD Vance, the New York Times best-selling book has proven divisive, with fans and detractors alike claiming it either knows everything or is already out of date.
Unfortunately, much of the examination of class struggles in the region is basically ignored by this film.
Vance grew up in Ohio in a poor, white, working-class family. His sister married young and has a brood of kids. His mother is an alcoholic. His grandmother –his Mamaw– was the tough as nails type, who fled the hill country of Kentucky with her soon to be husband, both pregnant and at the age of thirteen.
Needless to say, his childhood was not easy, and maybe not atypical of the region. There’s a crucial moment in his life when it’s clear he’s a smart kid, but he’s fallen in with the wrong crowd, and he needs someone to step in and give him a push toward the right path. This is where mamaw takes the reigns.
Hillbilly Elegy is, if you have seen films before, predictable. The young boy from a disadvantaged background makes good with the backing of a parental figure that isn’t his parent. What’s frustrating is that there is so much extra to mine from the material. The film has little to illustrate why people have it so bad in this part of the world, and little to say about how or why the world might be leaving them behind. It’s the kind of movie that has Glenn Close give a short speech about the types of people int he world using the Terminator as a metaphor, and dressing it up as though it’s anything other than the shallowest of wisdom.
All this is even more frustrating when you take into account that Amy Adams and Glenn Close are both incredibly good in it. Both reliable actors, and both Abel to pull real feeling from whatever material they are given, each of them brings that extra something to their roles that only a great actor can. Adams sinks believably into the role of the unstable, addict mother who will turn on a dime from praise to abuse. Close’s turn as Mamaw reminded me a lot of my own grandmother, which is no small compliment, capturing the nuances of a woman whose life didn’t go as planned and maybe the only character in the film who understands that the only way out of that life is to keep trying.
Director Ron Howard and cinematographer Maryse Alberti also do some fine work here. By letting the camera drift over the hill country and urban landscapes alike, the film captures the beauty of the former and the bleakness of the latter, but once again with little investigation into either.
The result is a film that doesn’t quite add up. It is exactly the sum of its parts. It’s not less than either, but it’s frustrating when everything is in place for it to be more.
Hillbilly Elegy will have a limited theatrical release starting from November 11th before premiering on Netflix on November 24th.