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By Darren Hughes
In his 1892 inaugural address, governor William MacCorkle warned that in the coming years West Virginia would find itself occupying the same “position of vassalage” that Ireland held in relation to England, and for similar reasons: “But the men who today are purchasing the immense areas of the most valuable lands in the State, are not citizens and have only purchased in order that they may carry to their distant homes in the North, the usufruct of the lands of West Virginia, thus depleting the State of its wealth to build grandeur and splendor in other States.” Over the previous century, the Scots-Irish smallholders of Appalachia—a region that stretches more than 2,000 miles from western New York to northern Alabama—had been systematically dispossessed of their land and their makeshift livelihoods by a dysfunctional patchwork of property laws, by an influx of capital that trapped mountain people in structured indebtedness, and, in the decades following the Civil War, by the industrialized extraction of iron and coal, the clear-cutting of forests, the resulting erosion of topsoil, and, as technologies advanced, mountaintop removal. In Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia, historian Steven Stoll compares the plight of the region to that of a colonized people: “The question we need to ask of every migration from country to city is whether it originated from a government scheme or corporate gambit that so degraded a people’s autonomy as to give them no choice.”
MacCorkle’s concern was notable among politicians of his day, as many in West Virginia’s congressional delegation at the time were industrialists themselves and beholden more to John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil than the citizens they represented. In subsequent decades, the governor’s worst fears were realized. The wholesale destruction of Appalachia’s subsistence economy created starvation-level poverty, which forced tens of thousands of people into wage labour and accelerated the first hillbilly migration—from mountain homesteads to mining towns, where workers were often paid in scrip that could only be spent at the company store. The region’s rich supply of natural resources and exploitable labour, along with its increasingly efficient transportation systems, resulted over time in the extraction and transfer of billions of dollars (by today’s accounting) from Appalachia into the capital reserves of east coast companies. The market crash of 1929 took most of that capital with it, necessitating mine closures and putting workers in a double bind: having traded what little value remained in their land for a steady, if inadequate, wage, they were left hungry, homeless, and indebted. When the elderly union members in Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA (1976) conjure images of the violent confrontations of the ’30s, they are speaking on behalf of that collective, ever-present trauma.
It should come as little surprise that none of this history is present in Hillbilly Elegy, Ron Howard’s adaptation of conservative commentator J.D. Vance’s 2016 rags-to-riches memoir. In interviews, Howard has gone to great pains to erase what he calls the “sociopolitical aspect” of Vance’s story, vanishing history, labour, capital, and public policy with a wave of his wand and with those magical, middlebrow incantations, “universality,” “shared humanity,” and “very relatable characters.” In that sense, he’s following Vance’s lead. “This book is not an academic study,” Vance writes in the opening pages, with a knowing wink to anyone back home who might accuse the Yale Law grad and venture capitalist of joining the class of elites for whom he expresses such resentment and envy throughout his bestseller. Rather, Vance offers as his one credential for speaking on behalf of an entire region—often literally in the royal “we”—the unimpeachable moral authority of authenticity, a sly rhetorical strategy that makes for good book-club discussions and bad art. Howard has made a habit of leveraging that ethos when framing his adaptation. He likes to tell the story of when Vance visited the set and then offered to call every member of the Academy on Glenn Close’s behalf because “she has somehow captured the absolute essence of my grandmother.” To reinforce the point, Howard inserts home videos of the Vance family into the closing credits, assuring viewers that, yes, Mamaw really was a larger-than-life character and, yes, Close’s transformation really is awards-worthy.
Hillbilly Elegy is about the legacy of the second migration, when scores of young people, Vance’s Mamaw and Papaw among them, fled the mountains and settled in lowland burgs like Middletown, Ohio, where the postwar boom, union benefits, and company pensions offered the promise of middle-class stability. Howard reduces their journey to a montage of predictable images during the opening titles: a passing glance at a Route 23 road sign, a bustling small-town square, and a CGI rendering of the AMCO plant in its heyday, all colour-corrected in the nostalgic sepia tones of an America that was still great. Jump cut to 1997, and that wide-eyed promise is lost: what little we see of Middletown is now boarded up, the plant stands vacant and decrepit, and Mamaw and Papaw (Bo Hopkins), both of them bent-shouldered and sallow, are shuttling their troubled daughter, Bev (Amy Adams), and her two teenaged children, J.D. (Owen Asztalos) and Lindsay (Haley Bennett), back home after a family reunion in Kentucky. Despite his protests, Howard has, with that elision of six decades, stumbled into a fine cinematic analogue for the sociopolitical content of Vance’s book, which amounts to a portrait of ahistorical resentment, salved by doctrinaire conservative snake oil. For the Vance family story to be universal, Howard must likewise edit out the complex tangle of causes and simply accept the real-world effects—domestic violence, alienation, unemployment, opioid addiction—as natural and representative. (As an aside, Joseph L. Anderson’s Spring Night Summer Night  is the best film about postwar Appalachia. John Crawford’s three-minute, regret-soaked barroom monologue renders most of Hillbilly Elegy redundant.)
Howard and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor have crafted a serviceable through line to Vance’s story by cross-cutting between his adolescent years, when his home life was at its most chaotic, and two days during his time at Yale, when a potential career-making interview for a prestigious internship is threatened by Bev’s most recent relapse. Howard’s and Taylor’s creative shuffling of events makes Hillbilly Elegy less a film about the life-saving influence of a take-no-shit grandmother, as Vance often describes his book, and more about the double consciousness of social mobility, the grievous push and pull between every aspirational dream and the life left behind. (Yes, the film is at its best when it strikes a universal note.) Gabriel Basso, who plays the older J.D., reminds me of my neighbours here in East Tennessee: he carries the character’s burdens convincingly and sympathetically, even when speaking in clichés. That the culminating scene between J.D. and Bev doesn’t quite land has less to do with the scenario or Basso’s and Adams’ performances than with Howard’s head-scratching lapses in taste. If, four decades into his career as a director, Howard still deems it necessary to insert a POV shot of piss filling a cup to express the emotional turmoil of a 13-year-old boy forced by his family to help his addict mother test clean, then there’s little hope he has a great film in him.
I can’t decide if I agree with critics who accuse Hillbilly Elegy of poverty tourism. The film fails in the same banal ways most biopics fail: by racing too quickly from incident to incident and clumsily conforming a complicated life to the ready-made beats of a script outline. The film’s few markers of Appalachia—green hills and ramshackle houses, mostly—are too empty to signify anything at all. Howard shot parts of Hillbilly Elegy in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Georgia, a short drive from the Chattooga River where John Boorman made Deliverance (1972) and just south of the locations Michael Mann used as stand-ins for New York’s western frontier in The Last of the Mohicans (1992). You’d hardly notice. Unlike the directors who have made great films about Appalachia—I’d add Karl Brown’s Stark Love (1927) and Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970) to the short list—Howard is untroubled by ghosts of the past and oblivious to the sublime. If I’m not offended by Hillbilly Elegy as I’d expected to be (in that respect I suppose it’s an improvement over Vance’s book), it’s because in his effort to elide history, Howard has made a film about a world of his own invention, a Middle America that exists only on Netflix.