“It didn’t start with her.” That’s the most penetrating thing said about Bev (Amy Adams), the frazzled maternal trainwreck who makes everyone’s life miserable in Ron Howard’s “Hillbilly Elegy.” Bev is a parasite, an addict, a narcissist, and a desperate user of others, notably her own family. In a word, she’s a mess. Her son, J.D. (Gabriel Basso), attends Yale Law School and is in the midst of auditioning for a summer internship, but now he’s got to go back to Middletown, Ohio, the Midwestern backwater he’s from, and jump through hoops to get his mother into rehab. He foots the bill for a week-long stay on four credit cards, only to learn that Bev has no interest in going into rehab. A former nurse who trashed her career when she roller-skated, high as a kite, through the corridors of a hospital, she’s been shooting heroin, and she seems to be going down fast. She doesn’t want help; she’d rather stew in her toxic juice of rage and self-pity. But no, it didn’t start with her. Does it ever?
“Hillbilly Elegy,” an adaptation of J.D. Vance’s 2016 memoir, is about an extended family mired in dysfunction, though the reason the book became a number-one bestseller is that it took us into the realm of something far more exotic than mere dysfunction. Bev Vance and her family come from Breathitt County, Kentucky, and the book was a deep dive into the mystique of Appalachia — the back-country values of tradition and loyalty, but also the poverty and violence and addiction, the abuse and social disintegration that have been accepted, far too readily, as part of that legacy. “Hillbilly Elegy,” in other words, was a primal X-ray into the soul of Trump country (or, at least, a central part of it), and the book’s appeal is that it showcased that culture in a way that was both voyeuristic and intimate. “Step right up,” it seemed to be saying. Here’s what the modern American hillbilly experience is really about: the good, the bad, and the backwoods ugly.
“Hillbilly Elegy” — the movie — is one of those dramas made by the Ron Howard who’s drawn, at least in theory, to edgy material. Hard drinking, domestic violence, suicide, all-around ornery viciousness. The movie is an American Gothic redneck soap opera, built to showcase the cussed flamboyance of characters like Mamaw (Glenn Close), the foul-mouthed, mean-as-a-rattlesnake hill-country grandmother who raised J.D. (with her mottled skin, oversize glasses, and unflinching scowl, she’s like Ma Barker meets Tyler Perry’s Madea meets Paul’s grandfather in “A Hard Day’s Night”), and Bev, who’s your basic, everyday working-class addict and self-hating loser — a woman who wears her despair on her pasty, bloated face. You could put it another way, of course, and say that Glenn Close and Amy Adams, in a movie like this one, are all uglied up for the their Oscar close-ups. It’s the acting-as-transformation-into-human-troll school. Except that the actors, in this case, hit true notes. They communicate the inner agony of what it feels like to be the “her” in “It didn’t start with her.”
The book took off just as Trump took office. The movie, coming at the end of his reign, could have felt (no pun intended) like a deliverance: a true-life tale that takes the Appalachian heart of darkness and lays it bare. Except that there’s a weird, bland flaw at the center of this adaptation. Ron Howard knows how to flirt with edge, but he’s drawn, by temperament, to healing and grace, to the urgency of people who mean well. Adapted by the screenwriter Vanessa Taylor, who cowrote “The Shape of Water,” “Hillbilly Elegy” stares at its screwed-up yokel characters from the outside in, but it’s most comfortable riding along with J.D., who in the book was grappling with his own psychological and emotional legacy, but who in the movie just comes off as a big, bearish, wholesome hunk of good intentions — a young man who’s the soul of decency stuck in a made-for-TV “My mom was a junkie!” melodrama.
How did J.D. claw his way from Middletown to Yale? We’re not entirely sure, though we know that he got there, and that he has a soulfully intelligent Indian girlfriend, Usha (Freida Pinto), who’s devoted to him, so there’s not much suspense about whether he figured out how to transcend his past. The film keeps flashing back to J.D. as a teenager in the mid-’90s, where he’s played as a saturnine geek by Owen Asztalos. But these parts of the movie have a sketchbook didacticism. J.D., it’s suggested, gets lost because his mother flits from one man to the next; when she marries on a whim, he winds up with a druggie delinquent stepbrother. A scene or two later, he has fallen into delinquency himself, a transformation that is less than convincing, though it roots the redemptive buddy-movie part of the film, when J.D. moves in with Mamaw, who lives up the block in Middletown.
She becomes his tough-love life coach, and makes it her mission to set the boy straight. She may be a nasty old granny varmint who dresses in sweaters that make her look like she was knitted right into them, but she’s got discipline. Not to mention a colorfully nasty line for every occasion. When she says “Kiss my ruby-red ass,” it’s not an insult — for her, it’s a declaration of joy. And don’t get her started on outrageous ethnic generalizations. Native Americans? “They’re called Indians,” explains Mamaw. “Like the Cleveland Indians. And they don’t know more than other people. They’re not magic just ’cause they don’t have microwaves.” The message is that out of a heart this hard come a love stern enough to heal.
As long as Close is acting up an award-worthy storm (her performance is actually quite meticulous), “Hillbilly Elegy” is never less than alive. Adams does some showpiece acting of her own, but as skillful as her performance is, she never gets us to look at Bev with pity and terror. What we should feel is, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Instead we think, “Thank God I don’t know this person.” Gabriel Basso’s J.D., on the other hand, is so wholesomely likable that the fate of his soul never seems at stake. His people may be haunted by the demons of Appalachia, but he comes off as a yuppie whose life has boiled down to: Will those demons stand in the way of my career path? Not if he won’t let them they won’t. That isn’t quite drama — it’s feel-good therapy.