BY A.S. Hamrah in Features | 23 FEB 21
Featured in
Issue 217

Hollywood Crawls Out of the Trump Era

A.S. Hamrah on the portrayal of ‘red America’ in Hillbilly Elegy, Rebuilding Paradise and Nomadland

BY A.S. Hamrah in Features | 23 FEB 21

Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy (2020) angered people just by existing. The Netflix movie had a built-in audience of critics because of its source material, the book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016), an autobiographical tract on life in Appalachia and Ohio by the conservative venture capitalist J.D. Vance. The film’s release followed the publication of another book on the subject, Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ (2019) – a collection of essays, stories and poems that countered and debunked Vance’s memoir by presenting a more rounded view of life in the region, which encompasses ever-more lives as the wealth gap increases.   

Because its emergence as a movie was foreordained and inevitable, Netflix didn’t understand that Hillbilly Elegy would repel people. A bestseller that received a lot of press and made its author a media figure, it had to get made into a movie just because things like that are what get made into movies. Add that Vance’s book attempted to explain a demographic which voted for former US President Donald Trump at the exact moment news media became obsessed with those voters, and it was a done deal. All that was left was to slap a title card reading ‘based on a true story’ before the first scene. 

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Ron Howard, Hillbilly Elegy, 2020, film still. Courtesy: © Netflix/Lacey Terrell

Because the Netflix algorithms can’t read cultural shifts, things didn’t go smoothly. Activists, writers and scholars from Appalachia condemned the film even before seeing it. Then, when Hillbilly Elegy made its streaming debut and they got an eyeful, they condemned it more forcefully. Though it was positioned as a heart-warming drama – perfect for family viewing over Thanksgiving – Howard’s adaptation was called one of the worst films of the year by pretty much everybody who saw it, not just people born between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Great Smokies.  

The movie’s failure as a drama overshadowed both the right-wing politics of its source material and the way it caricatures poverty in the US by blaming its victims for their plight. As a piece of hillbilly-sploitation, it lacks feuding and fighting beyond one scene set at a swimming hole. There’s a tracking shot of men fixing their trucks in front of their shacks, but Hillbilly Elegy spends little time in the hollers. Instead, the movie focuses on the displacement of J.D.’s (Gabriel Basso) family into an economically failing mid-sized city that heavy industry deserted post-NAFTA. Though it takes place in the recent past, the film has little to say about the high suicide rates and other deaths of despair plaguing towns like Middletown, Ohio, where it is set.

Bev (Amy Adams), J.D.’s mother, is a drug addict and a child abuser not because she inhabits a world with nothing in it for her, but because her parents, Mamaw and Papaw (Glenn Close and Bo Hopkins), were violent drinkers who married too young. Though ostensibly a Thanksgiving movie, Hillbilly Elegy’s most shocking moment is a Christmas flashback in which a vengeful Mamaw sets a booze-soaked Papaw on fire in the living room in front of the tree, a scene reminiscent of Backdraft – Howard’s 1991 film about Chicago firefighters. The fire is quickly extinguished, but the episode is supposed to explain Bev’s psychology: she followed in her parents’ footsteps.

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Ron Howard, Hillbilly Elegy, 2020, film still. Courtesy: © Netflix/Lacey Terrell

The material of Hillbilly Elegy flirts with a kind of Gummo-esque (1997) swing-state dysfunction that it can’t commit to – not because it’s about J.D.’s success in escaping all that, but because it was meant to serve as a holiday drama for Netflix. Another movie hiding inside it is one you will never get to see because it exists only in my mind: the grad-school J.D. takes Bev and Mamaw to New Haven, Beverly Hillbillies-style, to meet his professors and fellow law students at Yale, with Robin Williams as Mamaw instead of Close.

Why can’t Mamaw or Bev get a look at New Haven if J.D. is so proud of them? After all, he keeps telling people at Yale how Bev was the salutatorian of her class and the smartest person he’s ever known, as if Yalies might be interested in who was brainy enough to come in second at some random Ohio high school in 1983. He also likes to mention that Mamaw is the strongest person he’s ever known, as if she might suddenly materialize to win a tractor pull. Instead, in this film, J.D. must drive for hours back to Middletown so we can witness Bev shooting heroin over a toilet in a motel room. After that, he has to turn around and high-tail it back to Yale for an important job interview, driving at top speed while he weeps on the phone to his girlfriend (Freida Pinto), an audience stand-in who putters around their apartment trying not to fall asleep while he tells her he loves his mom. 

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Vance, who may run for Senate as a Republican in Ohio, was mentored at Yale Law School by Amy Chua. The notorious author of a memoir herself, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (2011), Chua briefly became a grating media figure in the early 2010s, just as Vance did half a decade later. Chua does not appear as a character in the film, despite being the template for Vance’s career as an expert in hillbilly parenting. Somehow, a film was never made from her book, even though Hollywood was abuzz. ‘Not only is there a movie here, I definitely think it’s more than one movie,’ said one of the producers of The Joy Luck Club (1993) about Chua’s book in a 2011 interview with The Hollywood Reporter

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Ron Howard, Hillbilly Elegy, 2020, film still. Courtesy: © Netflix/Lacey Terrell

It seems public performance of grievance and the celebration of personal success are subjects taught at Yale Law School along with the administration of justice. Vance served as an executive producer on Hillbilly Elegy, which Netflix paid Howard’s company US$45 million to make. The film will help his résumé more than it will help its stars win acting awards. The people who live where it takes place – the impoverished citizens of Kentucky and Ohio – will not be helped by it at all. 

Hillbilly Elegy is a bootstrap saga of motherly love, but it is so much less than that, too. While Vance’s book was criticized for the way it blames individuals for the systemic problems that have left whole regions in generational poverty, Howard’s movie exists at a lower level. Depoliticized as much as possible, the film is mere content, mediocre and empty. That style of blandness is now a signifier of authenticity for a mainstream audience of Netflix stay-at-homes – anything more lively would be puttin’ on airs. Flat and overlit, it plays brightly in rooms with the lights on, an undemanding, lulling aesthetic, made to be half-watched while numb. 

Howard directs with little care, the same way he directed Jim Carrey in the live-action version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000). He allows Close, that most patrician of actresses, to play Mamaw as a tottery homunculus, a fairy-tale ogress who explains things to J.D. between drags on her menthols by telling him: ‘We’re hill people, honey.’ The prosthetic makeup it took to turn Close into Mamaw reminded me of Eric Stoltz in Mask (1985). I don’t know if Hillbilly Elegy was a lark for Howard – a Hollywood figure entrenched in the minds of an older audience as an honorary Southerner because he played Opie on The Andy Griffith Show when he was a child in the 1960s – but he concentrates on hard-to-believe trivialities at the expense of drama and insight. 

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Ron Howard, Rebuilding Paradise, 2020, film still. Courtesy: National Geographic/Lincoln Else 

J.D., a grad student who served in the marines, is presented as not knowing what a salad fork is. He also becomes paralyzed and hysterical when he has to choose which wine to drink at a fancy, crowded cocktail party, as if anyone would notice or care which glass he took from a passing tray. Back in Middletown, J.D.’s sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett) uses plastic cutlery and prepares for a barbecue, complaining that she doesn’t have enough hot dogs for her cookout. This is juxtaposed with the goings-on at a law firm back east named Glaston Hamburg. I do not believe this hot dog and hamburger moment was intentional. I don’t believe anything was intentional in this movie beyond it being Fish Out of Water 101. It was written by Vanessa Taylor, whose last screenplay, The Shape of Water (2017, co-written with Guillermo del Toro), was just that. Mamaw’s demand that J.D. try harder should apply to Howard, too. 

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Four months before Hillbilly Elegy appeared, Howard released Rebuilding Paradise (2020), a documentary about a town destroyed by the deadliest wildfire in California history. The November 2018 Camp Fire decimated the town of Paradise, killing 85 residents and reducing over 18,000 buildings to ash. Trump visited Paradise in the wake of the destruction, referring to it as ‘Pleasure’. He blamed insufficient forest raking for the tragedy. The real culprit was Pacific Gas and Electric, whose 97-year-old equipment sparked a conflagration that burned 620.5 km2 and took 17 days to contain. Howard’s film includes the lawsuit against the utility company but lets them off the hook by having a naturalist remind us that ‘we will have fires.’ 

Howard’s two films from last year are linked by their mollifying attitudes, their inability to assign or accept blame and their inadvertent portrayal of people unprepared for change. A terrible event is portrayed by Howard as an act of God that might make a good movie. Rebuilding Paradise includes a brief montage of climate-change destruction before the end credits, accompanied by a depressing new Pearl Jam song, ‘River Cross’, which includes the lyric: ‘There’s no such thing as clear.’ After the town of 27,000 people nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills has been wiped out, the school superintendent tells Howard’s camera: ‘We never thought it would be this bad.’ 

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Ron Howard, Rebuilding Paradise, 2020, film still. Courtesy: National Geographic/Lincoln Else 

We watch as people pick through the rubble of their houses and move to a Federal Emergency Management Agency refugee camp in a Walmart parking lot. One woman marvels over how fitting it is that the only thing that survived the fire was her John Wayne shot glass. ‘And I probably had 70 different unique shot glasses,’ she says. While, in Hillbilly Elegy, Middletown is described by J.D. as a place where hope has gone missing, Paradise is able to hold its high-school graduation on the football field the year after the fire, although the ruins of the school have been condemned as unsafe. 

Howard tells the history of Paradise before the fire through home movies from the 1950s through the ’70s – a monocultural golden age that ended long ago. These faded Super-8 images could be from episodes of The Andy Griffith Show or the 1970s sitcom Happy Days, in which Howard also starred. One scene describes how an elderly man perished in the fire after escaping his burning house in a wheelchair. He got as far as the end of his driveway, where his daughter found only the wheelchair days later. Whether this man was in any of that nostalgic footage of Paradise lost, the film doesn’t say. These two images are kept as far apart as possible. There’s no connection between them, just as another 40 years passed between the period shown in the old home movies and the fire that wiped out the town. 

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Chloé Zhao, Nomadland, 2020, film still. Courtesy: © Searchlight Pictures, 20th Century Studios

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Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland (2020) also features a deserted town, but one where the buildings are still standing. Fittingly, for a place that has been a ghost town for the past ten years, it’s called Empire. ‘I loved Empire,’ says Frances McDormand, playing a houseless woman named Fern, a seasonal worker in late middle age displaced by the closing of a gypsum mining company in Nevada, where her late husband had worked. Fern lives in her van and travels through the west, going from place to place in search of employment. She works in an Amazon warehouse as part of the Amazon CamperForce, in the kitchen at the tourist attraction Wall Drug in South Dakota, at an industrial beet farm in Nebraska. 

Zhao’s film is based on a book, too: Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, from 2017. It is not autobiography. Bruder followed people like Fern – postindustrial nomads – as they tried to survive without fixed addresses or permanent jobs. To adapt the book for the screen, Zhao, McDormand and the film’s small crew lived in vans at the locations where they were shooting. With the exception of McDormand and David Strathairn, the cast is made up of non-professionals: people who live the way Fern does. 

Nomadland is the opposite of Hillbilly Elegy in the way it approaches poverty and precarity. The two films also have competing visions of cinema and its possibilities. Howard’s is more poverty-stricken, despite its high production cost. It is essentially non-serious. Zhao’s is richer, attentive, engaged with a reality removed from venture capital, media figures and Yale Law School.

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Chloé Zhao, Nomadland, 2020, photograph on set. Courtesy: © Searchlight Pictures, 20th Century Studios

Star performances link these films – Close’s and Adams’s in Hillbilly Elegy, McDormand’s in Nomadland. As Close and Adams played off each other in their twin quest for Oscars, I couldn’t help but notice their piercing blue eyes. But, instead of being drawn into the film by their performances, I stopped paying attention to what they were saying to wonder if the blue of their eyes had been digitally enhanced. In Nomadland, McDormand meets another van-dweller, Swankie, playing herself, an elderly woman dying of cancer who lives on her own. Because McDormand’s and Swankie’s eyes were as blue as Close’s and Adams’s, I immediately recalled Hillbilly Elegy while watching the two of them together: one an Oscar winner; the other someone who will never be in a film again.

Fern and Swankie are confused, contradictory characters, like Bev and Mamaw are supposed to be, but Zhao finds something in their eyes that she transfers to the viewer. These women are self-sufficient and proud, but they have been abandoned by everyone, in this moment, except each other and Zhao – and, therefore, whoever watches Nomadland. The truth of their lives comes through in Zhao’s movie. But the only explanation for their plight, which we hear rather than see, comes from a man named Bob Wells, a real person who organizes nomad camps like a character from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) – but without anything like the Civilian Conservation Corps of the New Deal era. ‘The economy has changed,’ Wells tells the other lost people he’s assembled around a campfire in the desert. As in Howard’s two films, that’s the only explanation we get.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 217 with the headline ‘Mamaw of the Hill People'.

Main image: Nomadland, 2020, film stills. Courtesy: © Searchlight Pictures, 20th Century Studios

A.S. Hamrah is the film critic for The Baffler and the author of The Earth Dies Streaming: Film Writing, 2002–2018 (n+1 Books, 2018). 

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