Hillbilly Elegy: The Muppets Take Ohio

A case study in ‘hickface’

Image: Netflix

An acquaintance of mine, an older gentleman from an even more remote backwood of Tennessee than me, told me a story several years ago about how he once captured a teenager who had been serially vandalizing his mailbox. Albert, my acquaintance, was bottle-feeding his infant son when he heard the familiar and infuriating crash of baseball bats against aluminum outside his home. Albert laid his son on the floor and ran out to find two teenagers — whom he knew — hammering away at his mailbox. When the boys saw him, they hopped on their motorcycle and sped away.

Albert gave chase in his Ford Escort and quickly caught up to the young delinquents on a narrow country path. He ran them off the road and they crashed in a field after plummeting down a steep embankment. Albert, who is something of a handyman, had a short length of 500 MCM (a stranded copper wire that’s fairly rigid and just as heavy as steel pipe) in the car and fetched it to use as a weapon. One of the boys fled, but Albert collared the other, clubbing him with the wire up the embankment and into the backseat of his car.

Back at his home, Albert threw the boy down on his porch steps and kept a foot on his back while Albert’s wife retrieved a 38. Special. The boy, already terrified, began crying and begging for his life. “I ain’t saved,” he told Albert over and over, “I ain’t saved.” FYI, In the south, “getting saved” means becoming a Christian.

“You got about three seconds to correct that,” Albert replied. He cocked the revolver dramatically and, after a moment or two, added, “Time’s up.” That’s when the boy peed on himself.

The Right Voice

Albert’s story is melodramatic, violent, horrifying, warped, and characteristic of a distinct strand of MAGA mentality. It is also wholly believable and when told by Albert, rendered in an authentic voice. Because Albert is the real McCoy and a die-hard Trump supporter committed to every conspiracy theory 45 avows, listening to his stories could teach us a lot about the rise of Trumpism in the Bible Belt, particularly in Tennessee, which has the largest proportion of evangelical protestants of any state in the country.

The demand for culturally authentic representations is on the rise in America, and that’s a good thing. Still, Hollywood frequently manages to reinforce cartoonish stereotypes because studios prefer “proven” creative teams to genuine but relatively unknown voices. If Ron Howard got the film rights to Requiem for a Mailbox, for example, I suspect something vital from Albert’s story would be missed, distorted, or unintentionally parodied.

Ron Howard’s Background

That’s because Ron Howard, despite playing a small-town southern boy on TV, has lived his whole life in Hollywood. Howard landed his first acting job when he was five and his first series — The Andy Griffith Show — when he was six. His parents were in showbiz, too; his father, actor Rance Howard, appeared in Cool Hand Luke and Independence Day; meanwhile, his mother, Jean Speegle Howard, scored dozens of small parts in both film and television throughout her career.

Hollywood, therefore, rather than Kentucky Bluegrass, is in Howard’s blood and it shows in his comic book rendering of J.D. Vance’s 2016 memoir, Hillbilly Elegy.

The Muppets Take Ohio

The film begins with teenage protagonist J.D. (Owen Asztalos) blissfully pedaling his bike through the hill country of Jackson County on his way to a swimming hole because, you know, they don’t have public pools in Kentucky. Dilapidated shacks, rusted-out pickup trucks, and poorly maintained yards full of trash, stray children, and dull expressions line either side of the dirt road J.D. travels; absolutely no one in the area is shown to take pride in themselves or their possessions.

In addition to these images of indolence, Howard uses the voice of a radio evangelist to complete his snapshot of hillbilly ethos. The film’s opening sequence is essentially a guided encounter with snake-handling sloths — a bizarre species, to be sure.

After informing the audience that he spent most of his childhood in an Ohio steel town, J.D. attests that the summers he spent among “his people” in Kentucky were “hands down the best part of [his] childhood.” Immediately thereafter, some of “his people” assault him at the swimming hole, nearly drown him, and spew abusive insults all while doubling over with laughter. No wonder J.D. so loves his old Kentucky home.

Such non-sequiturs pepper the film; J.D. chastizes his step-brother’s drug use by reference to his mother’s addiction, resists his mother’s demand that he provide her with clean urine for a drug test, then a few moments later is lighting up himself without any dramatic segue to explain how he got there. J.D. and his delinquent friends also trash a hardware store and then crash the getaway car as they flee the police, but in the next scene, they’re all back at home with apparently no consequences to face. Did they somehow evade the authorities? Will J.D. have to face a judge? Precisely what is the point of the scene? It speaks to J.D.’s downward spiral, sure, but it has zero narrative reverberations. It’s bad storytelling, period.

Meanwhile, adult J.D. (Gabriel Basso) is a fish out of water among Harvard elites because, gosh darn it, he just doesn't understand the byzantine silverware arrangement at the posh job fair he attends. How will he ever cope? Additionally, the bluebloods seem not to appreciate the differences between Appalachia and Mars; they gape at J.D. like he’s a little green man disembarking from a flying saucer smack in the middle of their precious cocktail party.

The whole affair recalls Jim Henson’s Gonzo the Great. A recurring gag in The Muppets films is that neither the humans nor Gonzo’s fellow Muppets know how to classify him; he’s not a frog, a bear, a piggy, or a human; he’s a “whatever.” J.D. is also a “whatever” to eastern aristocrats who have presumably never encountered anyone from the south before.

Howard took serious liberties with his source material to create his Gonzo; Vance’s memoir indicates that his Harvard peers were curious about his Appalachian upbringing but not dumbfounded by it. Neither was J.D. the first and only “whatever” to “visit” the prestigious campus. Ron Howard simply doesn’t understand Ivy League elitism or poor white trash, so he caricatures both.

Image: TriStar Pictures

Jim Henson’s Gonzo, by the way, is a much more amusing and sympathetic protagonist than J.D., who poorsplains, whitesplains, mansplains, and whateversplains the horrors of poverty and heroin addiction to his Indian girlfriend. J.D. never wakes to or turns from these biases in the film, and Howard never wavers in casting J.D. in the role of hero. It is a sleepy brand of storytelling, indeed.

Incidentally, J.D.’s girlfriend, Usha (Freida Pinto), is the daughter of an immigrant father who came to America with nothing, not even a dysfunctional family or white privilege to help him survive. But yeah, Usha needs J.D. to ‘splain things to her.

Usha represents a glaring inconsistency for Howard: we are supposed to believe that she, the Indian daughter of a once penniless immigrant, blends in seamlessly at Harvard, while J.D. sticks out like a rat in a soup kettle because of his Kentucky roots. Right. I’m sure that’s precisely how it all went down, Opie.

J.D., however, isn’t the only Muppet raising bedlam in Ohio. Amy Adams, who plays J.D.’s mother, Bev, chomps scenery in the film in the same bananas manner that possesses Cookie Monster on carb day. Adams is normally terrific, even in movies that don’t quite work. Her shouty, one-note performance in Hillbilly Elegy is thus inexplicable until you consider two words: Ron Howard.

Glenn Close turns in perhaps the strongest performance in the film, though that isn’t much of an accomplishment. She plays J.D.’s Mamaw, the grizzled and crafty family matriarch whose iron-fisted discipline and self-sacrifice sets J.D. back on the straight and narrow. Despite Close’s solid performance, she nevertheless manages to grate; her garish fright wig and overdone make-up and prosthetics continually remind the audience that Mamaw is just a character and not a real person. She bears a striking resemblance to Jim Henson’s “Animal”; after she set her husband on fire, I half expected her to bang her head against a snare drum.

A Case Study in ‘Hickface’

Left: Animal from The Muppets Take Manhattan, TriStar Pictures. Right: Glenn Close from Hillbilly Elegy, Netflix

In the early 20th century, a new form of entertainment blossomed in America. Minstrel shows employed white performers to depict black characters in cartoonish stereotypes while white audiences howled with delight. White actors donned ‘blackface’ to achieve the desired look; it is a practice rightly shamed today.

Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy is an exercise in ‘hickface.’ His creative team went to great lengths to precisely recreate the appearances of Beverly and Bonnie (Mamaw) Vance under the clear but certainly unacknowledged assumption that the Vances — and by extension, all Appalachians — are nothing but surface. It is the same assumption put forward about black people in minstrel shows. White storytellers should take note — Hillbilly Elegy is what happens when we try to narrate the lives of people we don’t understand.

While I can’t read Howard’s mind, I suspect he saw in Hillbilly Elegy a chance to make a movie about an all-white pocket of America and to thus avoid the ‘tricky’ business of including a cast of culturally diverse characters and doing the work required to understand individuals in their complexity. Problem is, not all poor white trash is alike, either.

Minstrelsy, white savior narratives, and cultural appropriation are all examples of racist othering; Hillbilly Elegy ‘others’ poor white southerners by way of classist assumptions. Rich Hollywood elites like Ron Howard view Appalachians as an exotic subhuman species who need to be studied, civilized, educated in the approved cultural norms, and, most importantly, harnessed for profit.

Coal country is the new frontier of colonization in the perspective offered by Hillbilly Elegy, a revelation that underscores the truth that colonial power requires objects of conquest to sustain itself and will rear human crops for that purpose within territories already conquered if necessary.

To Be Fair…

Some of my fellow Tennesseans have informed me that they feel triggered by Hillbilly Elegy in a variety of ways. The film reminds them of their abusive relatives, battles with drug addiction, poverty, and the feeling that there is no escape. They say the film accurately captures their experiences and they value it on that basis. Others confess feeling nothing but bored by Hillbilly Elegy, a sentiment I readily appreciate. Importantly, though, the bored crowd invariably attests that Howard got numerous things right. Because you can’t argue with a person’s experience, I’ll let those objections to my analysis go mainly uncontested. I do wonder, however, if Hillbilly Elegy, because of its reputation as a rosetta stone for MAGA, has become like facemasks in American culture — a token of political alignment that demands either fealty or renunciation depending on where you stand.

I stand by my experience of the film. Howard’s interpretation of the south scanned like parody to me, like a lampoon of Gone With the Wind featuring Kermit the Frog with a Clark Gable pencil mustache. I didn’t feel insulted as a southerner, mind you, just as a human with half a brain. In the words of the immortal Muppet critics, Statler and Waldorf:

Statler: “Hey, this ain’t half bad.”

Waldorf: “No, it’s all bad! Bwahahaha!”

In Muppets from Space, we learn that Gonzo isn’t a “whatever” but an alien from a faraway planet. His story in that straight-to-DVD release is both hilarious and heartwarming, which is more than I can say for the tale of Ron Howard’s alien from Jackson County. J.D. doesn’t fit in, but he isn’t likable either, and the film never stops to consider how that might be the deciding factor in his social failures at Harvard. Gonzo, by contrast, is most endearing; so is his Muppet family, despite its inherent mania. And Kermit, rather than Kentucky martian J.D. Vance, best articulated the moral of Hillbilly Elegy and thus absolved us of any need to see it: Simply said, it ain’t easy being green.

P.S.

If you’ve been reading this whole time to discover how the mailbox affair ended, I’ll tell you: The police arrived, took the boy away, and thanked Albert for apprehending the area nuisance. Albert later faced some difficulties in court for his treatment of the suspect, but nothing came of it. That the police thanked Albert for what he’d done struck me as alien; the peculiar culture that makes such happenings routine is certainly worthy of film treatment; hopefully, Ron Howard won’t get the movie rights. Waka waka!

I write about movies, books, culture, politics, and the intersection between them. MA in English, words in The Ascent, PSILU, The Writing Cooperative, and more.

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