Because Hollywoke no longer depicts — or even acknowledges — stay-at-home moms, I went for a Toxic Mother’s Day with Hillbilly Elegy. Ron Howard directed the movie based on J.D. Vance’s bestselling memoir about growing up in a backwoods family shakily headed by his dysfunctional mother and grandmother in Middletown, Ohio. Minus Vance’s superlative prose and insights, the film struggles to overcome a clumsy, pedestrian construction — all flashback and handheld camera work — with the benefit of exceptional performances by Amy Adams and Glenn Close in the tough roles of the two matriarchs. But as a storyteller myself, I find that the film’s contribution to the current political theater sparks my sense of irony.
Hillbilly Elegy tells the story of how young Vance at first suffered but ultimately escaped the frequent lows and occasional highs of poverty, classism, and maternal instability. His pretty mother, Bev, while working various jobs, found it easier to support herself and her two children, J.D. and his older sister Lindsay, by living with numerous men. The family turbulence of such an arrangement and its emotional toll on Bev almost destroys both her and J.D. Only the strength of his grandmother, Mamaw — herself haunted by demons — helps him see through Bev’s hostile outbursts and mental breakdowns to the pain she bears, which hides her love for him.
J.D. makes it to Yale Law School, where his future career success depends on dealing with people who may find his background, well, deplorable. Two excellent scenes nicely showcase the contrast. One is the funeral car procession for his late grandfather (a wonderful old Bo Hopkins, a long way from his young punk characters in the Sam Peckinpah classics The Wild Bunch and The Getaway). Riding in one car with Mamaw, a young J.D. (Owen Asztalos) curiously observes every man along the route taking off his hat. “We’re hill people, honey,” Mamaw says. “We respect our dead.”
Later, at a crucial intern recruitment dinner, adult J.D. (a winning Gabriel Basso) realizes that picking up the wrong fork could blow his professional future, and he never learned the proper etiquette. Fortunately, he has his lovely law student girlfriend, Usha (Freida Pinto), to guide him through the ordeal. But just when he seems on the verge of success, he gets a call from Lindsay (an excellent Haley Bennett) that their mother is on heroin. J.D. must then decide between family responsibility and career security.
The film’s highlights, however, are outweighed by many instances of poor writing. Wrestling a syringe from Bev’s hand, for instance, J.D. shouts, “What’s wrong with you, mom?!” He already knows full well what’s wrong with her. She’s a drug addict, and he’d just failed to get her into rehab. Although Hillbilly Elegy was a financial disappointment in 2020, grossing less than its modest $45 million budget, it may have a more consequential political-cultural effect.
The 2016 election of Donald Trump drove Hollywokesters berserk, not least among them Ron Howard. The same year his Hillbilly Elegy came out, Howard tweeted, “In the entertainment industry many who have known/worked w/ Trump think that while his reality show was fun and ran a long time, he’s a self-serving, dishonest, morally bankrupt ego maniac who doesn’t care about anything or anyone but his Fame and bank account & is hustling the US.” That’s a lot of Trump derangement in one little tweet. And “a self-serving, dishonest, morally bankrupt egomaniac who doesn’t care about anything or anyone but his Fame” could apply to many, probably most, of Howard’s peers on both sides of the camera.
That year, Howard must have been delighted with the real-life protagonist of his film, who in 2016 came out viciously anti-Trump. “Trump makes people I care about afraid,” Vance tweeted. “Because of this I find him reprehensible. God wants better of us.” Soon afterward, Vance wrote, “In 4 years, I hope people will remember that it was those of us who empathized with Trump’s voters who fought him more aggressively.”
Fast-forward six years. Vance ran for the Senate in Ohio, with little chance of winning the primary, even after acknowledging his folly as a Never Trumper. Then Trump gives Vance his highly coveted endorsement, and Vance catapults to the top of the heap. Last Tuesday, Vance became the Republican Senate nominee — and likely future senator — from Ohio.
At his Pennsylvania rally Saturday, Trump said, “I want to thank J.D. Vance for being here. What a job he did. He’s hot now. You know, he’s hot. He’s a great hot celebrity. Maybe he won’t remember me anymore. Maybe he’ll say, ‘Trump? Oh yeah, he was right.’ But he will. He’s going to remember all of us. Because he’s going to be around for a long time politically, in my opinion. He’s very smart, and he’s the one who can win. And he will win in Ohio. J.D Vance — good man.”
Cut to Ron Howard pulling out what little hair he has left. Now that’s entertainment.
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