In case you have the good fortune and/or good sense not to spend way too much time on Twitter, it's possible you don't know that Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance ... might not be the most progressive guy in the world. It was a weird tweet about American fertility rates and Daylight Saving Time that inspired the most eye-rolling just recently, but identifying himself first and foremost as a "Christian" in his Twitter bio and using scare quotes when referring to "gender studies" could also clue you in as to where his leanings might be.
This extra-textual knowledge might not impact anyone's reaction to director Ron Howard's new adaptation of Hillbilly Elegy, but those familiar with the book itself might be surprised at the studiously middle-of-the-road narrative they find in this version. While Vance's memoir extrapolated a lot from his hardscrabble personal family history to make quite a few generalized observations about who's to blame for rural poverty—turning the book into a favorite of publications like The American Conservative—the film seems so determined not to offend anyone politically that it hardly seems to have a point.
In telling Vance's life story, Hillbilly Elegy shifts back and forth between two distinct time frames. In the "present" of 2011, J.D. Vance (Gabriel Basso) is a student at Yale Law School, trying to land a crucial summer internship that will help him pay for his tuition. But that quest is complicated by receiving a call that his mother, Bev (Amy Adams), has just overdosed on heroin. While J.D. deals with that immediate crisis, he reflects on his childhood, specifically time as a teenager (played by Owen Asztalos) in blue-collar Middletown, Ohio—where Bev's own mother, J.D.'s Mamaw (Glenn Close) fled from her Kentucky Appalachian family as a pregnant teen—dealing with Bev's perpetual volatility.
The character core of Hillbilly Elegy lies in the idea of what someone might be running from or running to in search of a better life, and Howard's direction offers glimpses of how to make that idea compelling. A tunnel at the entrance to Middletown becomes a recurring symbol, initially marking young Mamaw seeing the town as a metropolitan wonderland compared to her backwoods home, and later as a place of shuttered mills, boarded-up storefronts and drug deals. J.D.'s discomfort and sense of shame among his Ivy League classmates drives an early scene at a recruitment dinner, and his primary arc becomes how J.D. will come to terms with the family drama that keeps pulling him back in.
Mostly that family drama takes the form of Bev's unstable parenting, which naturally provides an opportunity for a showy performance. Adams gets a lot of big scenes to play—a violent outburst directed at young J.D.; screaming resistance to having her drugs taken away from her; roller-skating through a hospital while doped up on opioids—and it's hard for those moments not to play as anything but over the top, even if every single moment literally happened. Glenn Close gets the lower-key role, mostly being the tough-love dispenser of folksy-but-foul-mouthed wisdom, and Hillbilly Elegy sells the crucial connection between Mamaw and the adolescent J.D. It's just not nearly as good at conveying enough of Bev's own upbringing to indicate whether her life is the result of her general environment, her own childhood with abusive parents, her specific mental illness, or some tragic cocktail of all of the above.
And that's where Hillbilly Elegy breaks down as storytelling with anything more to share than one man's experience. The montage in which we see young J.D. making the pivotal decisions that lead him towards success plays like a case study in pulling yourself up by your bootstraps—he digs into his homework, helps wash Mamaw's dishes, goes to work at a convenience store to earn extra money—without asking too many questions about why such an approach didn't work for his mother. Even if you found Vance's victim-blaming and perpetuation of "welfare queen" narratives in the book offensive, at least it indicated a specific point of view. In an attempt to tidy up the author's potentially unpalatable attitudes, Howard turns Hillbilly Elegy into something with a vacuum where its own very specific sense of social morality would be.