In 2014, a data analysis team at the New York times determined the hardest counties in the country to live, based on several factors. Six counties in Kentucky’s coal country ended up in the bottom 10. Clay County, the place I grew up in until I left for college, came in dead last. A subsequent article affectionately titled “What’s the Matter with Eastern Kentucky?” tried to break down why. Writer Annie Lowery’s best solution was for anyone who could hoard enough money to get out of dodge. It is a dismissive and painful article I was forced to read multiple times throughout my high school years by English teachers who wanted us to know what the rest of the country apparently thought of us. I’ve spent my college years trying to unlearn a lot of what I thought about where I grew up. Watching documentaries like Hillbilly certainly helped, and simply finding good media representation like Justified made me think about the place differently. J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy was the talk of the town upon publishing, read as a hit piece by actual Appalachians and as sacred text for everyone else, who needed an answer for Trump at the time. Anyone not looking at it for reactionary purposes could see that it was egocentric fodder, two hundred pages of Vance patting himself on the back for taking the Lowery method and getting out. Here we are in 2020 with a film adaptation, perfectly timed as Oscar buzz is beginning to be heard. So I ask, what’s the matter with Hillbilly Elegy?
I won’t beat around the bush with this one, Hillbilly Elegy is trite, as egocentric as its source material, and without a sliver of nuance. Our story begins in Jackson, Kentucky, and from the beginning the young J. D. is portrayed as too good for this. “This” is his family, his peers, and Jackson itself. He is bullied by faceless goons for being from Ohio after wandering off when he’s supposed to be getting ready for his family’s move back to Ohio. We flash forward to J.D.’s college years, and as he kisses up to snobby men in black ties and struggles with dinner table etiquette while dodging family calls, the film lets you know he’s too good for his family and not good enough for the world he wants to be in. Indeed, Gabriel Basso’s narration makes it clear that this is J.D.’s story despite how much the marketing and Oscar campaigns will have you believe that this is Amy Adams and Glenn Close’s film. Let’s talk about those two for a second.
Anybody could argue that there is something dignified about Amy Adams and Glenn Close taking roles like these. Anyone in good faith could say that they picked up this film because they care about representing the community and shining a light on overlooked American plights. But next to Bo Hopkins’s Papaw Jim they look even more out of place than they already are. The movie knows you’re here to see these two women transform, Adams’s name even comes in before the title card. But Close’s oversized and faded flag t-shirt and Adams’s short overalls are just as ridiculous a costume as any superhero’s cape and cowl. Haley Bennett’s presence in the cast just serves as a brutal reminder of how The Devil All The Time handled this setting with so much tangible care. If Adams and Close aren’t phony enough, the writing they’re given is abysmal. The “good Terminator, bad Terminator” scene from the trailer is somehow not the worst of it, as that’s one of the few moments of nuance and the only moment of appropriate oddity. Living life with very little makes you appreciate very specific things, and a woman Mamaw’s age who still gets a kick out of Terminator 2 on the hundredth viewing is a pretty sweet character detail.
Every time the film teases you with something to get you attached to its two female leads, Bev does something horrible or J. D. yells at Mamaw because he thinks she’s insufferable. These two certainly aren’t the nicest people around, though Mamaw is meant to get a bit of sympathy for going through so much and still giving a damn. Bev is a whole other story. I get that the premise is that J. D. escapes his abusive mother, but rarely does the film acknowledge her own suffering until it’s time for Adams’s Oscar reel to be shot. This 180 the film tries to pull by acknowledging the cycle of abuse she went through dismisses her previous unjustified actions without reminding the audience that she could have broken the cycles that she came from and is still to blame for that. At the end of the day, this is about the fact that J. D. Vance is better than everyone else. It’s such a privileged viewpoint from somebody that “made it out,” with complete disregard for those before him that didn’t. Bev says it herself that she always tries, but J.D. (both author and character) doesn’t care. The most this film does is force a mouthpiece to be given to these two maligned women, but when J.D. Vance’s word is still all we have to trust there won’t be any validity to their side of the story no matter how much the film tries to trick you into thinking that’s what it’s doing.
Is Hillbilly Elegy the worst film of the year? The fact I have to ask myself that means it’s certainly in contention. It may not be as obviously bad as The Turning, A Fall From Grace or Scoob, but it’s a different kind of bad than those. Its grandiosity hides its failures, and it’s more dangerous than any average studio hack job could ever be. We’ll likely see a repeat of what happened with Vance’s book, with the film being praised for its brave dissection of the Appalachian brand white working class struggle. Vance was once referred to as the “false prophet of Blue America,” and the film certainly continues that streak.
A lot is the matter with Hillbilly Elegy.