REVIEW: Hillbilly Elegy

Something happened during the 2016 election. As a country, we watched as droves of voters in rural, white, working class counties that often shone blue turned a deep red. How could this happen? Looking for a quick and satisfactory answer, many folks gravitated towards a singular work, J.D. Vance’s memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy.” Though the book does touch on the sociopolitical trends of white rural poor in America, it may not have been totally fair to pin the decoding of this turning of the political tide on Vance’s words. At the end of the day, “Hillbilly Elegy” is one man’s story. Eventually, people aware of the book realized it didn’t actually solve the riddles we were puzzled by in American society. The comfort found in the book post 2016 election quickly soured into anger that evils like white supremacy haven’t gone away.

It wasn’t Vance’s goal to completely confront America’s history of racism or deconstruct current patterns in the 24 hour news cycle. “Hillbilly Elegy” doesn’t actually wrestle with many of the broader issues present in America in 2016, 1776, or 2020. Vance planted a foot in his past and his context and tried to tell the world what he was seeing from his point of view. There are deeply destructive trends in white rural communities all over America and Vance was able to shed light on them by tapping into his personal experience. Still, the book carries the weight of that particular moment in history and it’s public perception suffers for it. So when Netflix dropped the trailer for the film adaptation directed by Ron Howard and starring Amy Adams and Glen Close, many feared that the story would continue to give people incomplete answers for centuries old questions. The problem with the film Hillbilly Elegy, isn’t the societal pressure placed on the source material, it’s that it’s not a good movie.

There have been some truly incredible films lately that have taken audiences, and awards voters, into the lives of America’s most marginalized and poverty stricken. The Florida Project is a great example because it takes the context of Disneyland and contrasts it with the many people struggling to survive outside the Magical Kingdom’s gates. Even a film like Moonlight has a lot in common with Elegy in terms of subject matter and non-linear storytelling. These movies were focused, subtle, and pulled you directly into the lives of their subjects. There is nothing subtle or focused about Elegy. There is an old moviemaking adage of “show don’t tell.” It dictates that filmmakers should rely on visual communication to get their story across instead of a device like voiceover or flashback. Hillbilly Elegy seems to subscribe to that philosophy, and then some. The film shows, tells, shows some more, shows a few more, and then tells you again.

The film enters Vance’s story through one specific moment during college paired with several key moments from his childhood. Most of it centers around how Vance’s people, his family and community, help each other out when life is throwing punches. The J.D. in the film then must wrestle with the tension of trying to help himself as well as trying not to help his mother to the point of enabling her addictions and behaviors. We catch up with adult J.D. after his military service in the Marines, after his undergraduate studies at Ohio State, and some time into his career at Yale Law School. He’s in the midst of interviewing for a very important internship when he gets a call from home. Life had thrown another punch. We then see flashbacks of traumatic events revolving around his mother’s destructive and abusive tendencies.

Throughout the drama J.D. also interacts with the greatest source of support in his life, his grandmother. Real life J.D. credits his grandmother for a lot of his success. It’s because of Mamaw that J.D. is able to pull his bootstraps all the way up and march towards Yale. Of course, this is shown in a Rocky-style montage of taking out the trash and studying really hard. See, says the film, anybody can just work hard and make it. Even Vance admits that that’s not the foundation of his story. He made it because he had someone to help him. Not everyone has that, but again, this movie is not interested in subtlety or complexity.

When I mentioned those punches that J.D. takes throughout the movie, that is another example of the film’s lack of much needed subtlety. Nearly every moment in the film is played as a haymaker making sure that idea that J.D. has a hard life is beaten into our minds. Yes, sometimes when life is very difficult it does feel like hits keep coming one after another, but life is often way more nuanced than that. There is a brief moment in flashback that shows J.D. making breakfast with his girlfriend. He asks for syrup in his accent and she gets on his case for the mispronunciation. It’s a moment of humanness and levity that gives us a break from the punches. Elegy needed more of that.

In The Florida Project, between scenes depicting drug abuse and hunger, the young protagonist, Moonee plays and escapes into her imagination. In Moonlight, Chiron finds himself in moments of love, joy, and happiness around the dinner table of a neighbor. If we don’t have these moments to humanize everyone in the story, then the characters come off as one-note and unlikeable. Elegy gives you almost no reason to like J.D.’s mother or even to like the place he grew up. It relegates some of the more complicated, but important, components like breaking cycles of generational poverty and abuse to footnotes as it yells through the screen that J.D. and his family are poor and hopeless.

There are moments where the movie hints that it could have been something greater. Stressed about finding a rehab facility for his mother, J.D. engages with some friends who all have a suggestion. They know the area facilities like they’re local restaurants. Each of them have had friends, family, or neighbors that have dealt with drug and alcohol abuse. I was expecting someone to stop and say, “Wow, I guess we’ve all had someone close to us enter rehab.” Thankfully, they didn’t. We were given a clear, but subtle picture of their lives. Finding a rehab facility is normal. There are people in these regions of America crying out to be seen, crying out for help. Help like J.D. found in his grandmother. She saw him and decided she would step in and give him a chance at a better life. In 2016, when Vance’s book was making its initial rounds, there was a moment where our eyes were on Appalachia, but I fear with this adaptation people may just want to look away.

Real life J.D. Vance

Answering the big questions with “Arrival”

“What is your purpose on Earth?”

This is the central question of director Denis Villeneuve’s alien invasion thriller, Arrival. Villeneuve is known for slow-build, tense storytelling like Prisoners and Sicario and with Arrival he applies that expertise to a 300 level Comm Theory class. The film isn’t so much set around asking that question to the audience or the aliens as much as it is the journey to understanding how to ask this question, “What is your purpose on Earth?”

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This is the job of famous linguist Dr. Louise Banks played with care and intensity by Amy Adams. That’s right, Arrival is about the super sexy field of linguistics. It is Dr. Banks’ job to ask this question to alien visitors who showed up unannounced to 12 random places around the globe. Have you ever had a problem communicating with someone who speaks your language, maybe even someone in your own family? Where in the world would you even start with a brand-new alien race?

Here the tension of Arrival begins. What if this is an alien military invasion on a global scale? What if this is an elaborate plot by this alien race to pit Earth’s military powers against each other? What if the aliens have discovered we are the only planet in the universe to master having “pizza anytime” and have come to partake in some sweet, sweet Bagel Bites? Until we figure out how to communicate with the aliens, we will never know.

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If you’ve never thought about how complicated human communication is, Arrival will make your head spin. We live in a time with some of the most widely accessible and powerful communications technology, so why is it that we still find it so hard to talk to one another, to understand one another?

At its core, Arrival, is about learning to communicate with the “other.” The timeline of our history is littered with the consequences of fearing those who are different from us. Fear comes from the aliens’ unpredictable behavior. Is their behavior truly threatening or is it scary because it’s not what we would do? Tensions come from the frustration of not being able to talk to the aliens. Is this language barrier an act of war or does that frustration come from our belief that the burden of communication lies on our visitors? We would be put at ease if they just spoke our language. They came to us after all.

When we reach a comfortable cocktail of confusion and fear in our communication with others it is easy to find any number of meanings in their actions. If you watch Arrival, and I recommend that everyone should, allow the movie to reveal the barriers you have in communicating with people different from you. Do they look very different? Do they not speak your language? Do you fail to understand why they do some of the things they do the way they do them?

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Discovering these barriers and breaking them down are a worthy exercise. Intimacy with the “other” is something God calls us to in our human relationships. An easy example might be marriage, though this is not the sole relationship where emotional intimacy and support is possible. The further we get into our marriage, my wife and I continue to understand our biggest obstacle is that we are two different people.

We think differently, we perceive differently, we experience differently, and we respond differently. To me, a clean bathroom looks visibly clean. To my wife, a clean bathroom involves bleach. To me, laundry is separated into whites and colors, hot and cold wash. To my wife, laundry instructions are a humble suggestion. Yes, at times, the fact that we are the “other” causes pain, fear, and confusion but as we live into our otherness we experience some of life’s most profound beauty.

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Do we ever really know ourselves unless we experience ourselves through the eyes of the “other”? Do we ever really experience the love of God unless we have been loved by someone who objectively knows us…and loves us anyway? When we make space in our lives for the “other” we open ourselves up to the deeper mysteries of how God loves us. That is what we offer each other if we can learn how to talk to one another. You might just find your purpose for being on this Earth.

Breaking down these barriers is difficult and is the hard, emotional work we see Dr. Banks go through in the film. It requires strength, it requires grace, and it requires an open mind. We are always more comfortable with people that are most like ourselves. It is easy to love those with whom it is easy to communicate, but imagine how much bigger your love could be. Imagine how much bigger a love you could receive. Having your space invaded can be scary, but just imagine how terrifying you are to the “other.”

While you watch:

Most countries are finding it difficult to communicate with the aliens, what makes Dr. Banks different? How does her approach differ from her scientist and military co-workers? What are her beliefs behind her methods and why is it more successful?

Who do you have the most trouble communicating with? What are the barriers that make that difficult? What could you do to break those barriers? How does Dr. Banks break down barriers in the movie?