I sort of hate it when movies, books, media reduce complex issues down into easily digested bites. That’s the trouble with Hillbilly Elegy, the movie now playing on Netflix: distilled into the Hatfield and McCoys.
In fact that piece of mountain myth is referenced in the first 15 minutes of the film.
My book Cloud of Witnesses and Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance follow the same character arc—sort of. Hillbilly Elegy came out in an election year, 2016, and talk shows turned to it as a way to understand how Trump became President. I’m still not sure how that happened or why still 74 million people voted for him this time. Vance’s memoir served as an in-road to understand people who live paycheck to paycheck in forgotten, dried up manufacturing towns. I guess. I was simply irritated by the book.
Because no one story tells the whole story. But from Elegy people (media, Ron Howard) derive memes.
The truth depicted just as in Cloud of Witnesses is that Appalachia births resilient people who have to learn to adapt in order to get by. If it wasn’t ginseng it was gin (moonshine), if it wasn’t hemp then it was marijuana. I can’t tell you how many small farmers surreptitiously grew it in the backwaters of Athens County, Ohio where my story takes place. In Vance’s book the story begins in Middletown, Ohio where when I was growing up was a steel town—now somewhat decimated, a rusty abandoned movie lot. Just like how Appalachia represents an old car pushed down a ravine, covered in leaves and golden sunlight wafting through tree canopy. A mix of realism infused with a Romantic glow.
In the opening scenes of the movie we meet Mamaw, a kind-hearted, fiercely loyal woman you do not want to tussle with. I’ve got a Granny in Cloud who also represents the heart of the family, who like in Vance’s book migrated from the hills and hollers looking for “work” in Ohio. The dream didn’t always pan out. Granny, like Mamaw, is a conundrum. You’re not sure you like her, but she’s interesting. In the film Glenn Close is almost unrecognizable, buried beneath a reverse make-over of oversized glasses and shirts/sweatshirts. Amy Adams plays Vance’s mother—a far cry from her fairytale princess role in Enchanted, more like a throwback to one of her earliest roles Junebug. Except without the cuteness.
In Elegy as other reviewers have noted Howard had her roiling between zero and one hundred as a dramatic character. She lays on a bed as a depressive and also takes a turn around the corridors of a hospital on roller skates. I get it, she’s bi-polar dealing with stress by abusing medication and then heroin. Again, this is all turned into clichés for the screen. We never get a sense of the real people underneath. The why if even there is no why or reason.
How does Vance turn out differently, to leave Middletown and become a lawyer, best-selling writer, and movie producer? The old-fashioned way—by his bootstraps.
But, you see, in “real” life it is much more complicated.
My character Roland in Cloud of Witnesses has the same ambitions to one day leave his trailer on the ridge, to follow the power lines elsewhere, perhaps Cincinnati or Columbus. He knows that there is something out there, but while struggling with longing he is also at the same nostalgic for his family which is falling apart. He is forced to weigh loyalties and ties to relationships. He learns it is important to be true to one’s self and also to be a friend. A friend stands up for friends
Another thing that bugged me about the film was the not so subtle message that personal responsibility is the bedrock of Conservatism. Vance became a Republican poster boy, overcoming his background and enlarging his personal story through hard work. I don’t buy it. There are a lot of people who work hard and don’t get where he’s got. There are a lot of folks back in Middletown and Dayton who struggle day in and day out who still need a stimulus check and food stamps to get by. These folks need government just as much as they eschew it—they’d never admit they need a handout because of pride. It’s why they vote against their better interests, it’s why the story of Appalachia is so complicated.
Is Hillbilly Elegy a movie I would have gone to the theater to see? I’m just glad I could stream it.