Hillbilly Elegy, for better or worse, has become a kind of political litmus test.
Releasing as it did in the midst of a presidential election that shocked the world, J.D. Vance’s compelling 2016 memoir of Appalachian poverty has been both celebrated and pilloried. In the eyes of its fans, the book is a starkly honest portrait of an American working class in pronounced decline, and an appeal for help on behalf of mostly-forgotten blue-collar communities. For its critics, Hillbilly Elegy is mere “poverty porn” offering a distorted image of small-town Ohio, and is poisoned by a “bootstrap mentality” that ignores the true hopelessness of systemic deprivation. (There’s also been some grumbling that the “white working class” is already privileged enough and doesn’t warrant much more policy attention than it presently receives.) It’s impossible to review Ron Howard’s new film adaptation—out in theaters now, with a Netflix release to follow over Thanksgiving weekend—apart from all this context.
In any event, defenders and detractors are only debating the book and film in the first place because, well, Vance got out. After serving in the Marine Corps directly following high school, Vance excelled at Ohio State University and went on to attend Yale Law School—a kind of baptism into the professional-managerial elite that wields cultural and political power in contemporary America.
Hillbilly Elegy’s frame story picks up with J.D. (Gabriel Basso) in late 2011, in the midst of on-campus interviews at YLS. The realm of elite corporate “Biglaw” firms, offering lavish receptions and eye-popping starting salaries, is a world altogether alien to J.D.’s more middle-class sensibilities—though his supportive girlfriend Usha (Freida Pinto) is there to help him through.
On the cusp of final interviews that will make or break his career, J.D. receives a call that his mother Bev (Amy Adams) is hospitalized following a heroin overdose. So, J.D. drives through the night back to his increasingly hollowed-out Ohio hometown. On the way, the story of J.D.’s childhood is recounted through a series of flashbacks to the the pivotal moments of J.D.’s life—many of which involve his loving yet hard-bitten grandmother “Mamaw” (Glenn Close), and Bev’s tragically cyclical pattern of struggle and decline.
Unsurprisingly, Adams and Close both turn in Oscar-contender performances. Adams, playing against type as the volatile and erratic Bev, dominates the screen, whether laughing with her children or shrieking at police in the middle of the street. Technically speaking, the film is tightly edited and continually engrossing (and it certainly doesn’t hurt that legendary film composer Hans Zimmer contributes to the soundtrack).
All of this, though, might’ve been expected—given Howard’s involvement and the obvious amount of money that was lavished on the film. What about the subtext?
On that front, the film gets a mixed grade. This Hillbilly Elegy adaptation isn’t a particularly political flick—you have to squint to see anything really controversial here—but unfortunately this isn’t necessarily to its credit. In fact, I can’t help thinking that in stripping the book down to its most dramatic images and scenes, something truly vital has been sacrificed.
Since I haven’t already, I should make one thing clear: it’s impossible for me to approach Hillbilly Elegy, whether in book or film form, from a place of total objectivity. Though I certainly can’t claim to have lived a life like Vance’s, my family hails originally from the same Midwestern communities that are now suffering from the creeping rot of deindustrialization. My own friends and relatives have wrestled with drug abuse and family breakdown. And as it happens, I’ve actually crossed paths with Vance himself a few times—he was just four years ahead of me at YLS—and I presently work in a day job that bears significantly on these issues. So, take my thoughts for what they’re worth.
When J.D. first experiences culture shock in the rarefied world of YLS legal recruiting, I felt an immediate flare of recognition. That world is almost perfectly captured onscreen (and on the page)—it is a world where you learn to talk about David Mitchell’s latest book and the best restaurant in Tel Aviv and why yes I do have an opinion on the latest season of “Orange is the New Black,” thank you very much.
But Hillbilly Elegy serves as a reminder that the world outside those gates has a beauty of its own, though one perhaps unintelligible to those long steeped in upper-class norms.In a particularly haunting sequence in the film, after Mamaw’s husband dies, dozens of community members stop what they’re doing as the hearse slowly drives past, stepping aside from their work to solemnly stand at attention
“Why are they doing that?” J.D. asks.
“We’re hill people,” Mamaw says simply “We honor our dead.”
It’s an image that’s altogether too painfully earnest for the world of champagne bottles and Biglaw, impossible to recount at a gala without throwing in an awkward chuckle or an ironic aside. And it’s an image that captures a deep truth about Vance’s project: Hillbilly Elegy is a book written in the implicit conviction that in America’s increasingly impoverished heartland towns, there is still something worth saving—the possibility of speaking unabashedly of something like honor, the cultivation of traditions cherished as sacred or close to it, sprawling families overflowing with new life, and so much else. In a world of trendy neighborhoods filled with near-silent luxury apartments, inhabited by a caste of HBO-watching nouveau riche content to defer family life ever further into the future, those particular joys are hard to glimpse.
And crucially, that is a world within which the real-world Vance is not content to permanently define himself. Hillbilly Elegy ends with J.D.’s graduation from YLS and transition into the ranks of the American “masters of the universe,” but the real-world tale doesn’t conclude there. In a recent extended essay in The Lamp magazine, Vance openly undercuts the assumption that Hillbilly Elegy is to be taken as a kind of rags-to-riches story:
“My Randian arrogance about my own ability melted away when confronted with the realization that an obsession with achievement would fail to produce the achievement that mattered most to me for so much of my life: a happy, thriving family. I had immersed myself in the logic of the meritocracy and found it deeply unsatisfying. And I began to wonder: were all these worldly markers of success actually making me a better person? I had traded virtue for achievement and found the latter wanting. But the woman I wanted to marry cared little whether I obtained a Supreme Court clerkship. She just wanted me to be a good person.”
The fact that the entire Hillbilly Elegy project exists is a testament to the fact that for Vance, personal success is not the end of the story. Indeed, Vance openly acknowledges that he “spent less than two years after graduation as a practicing attorney”—instead electing to launch a venture capital project in Columbus, Ohio with the goal of developing startups in underserved cities. Vance has always struck me as someone willing to put his money (literally) where his mouth is. And so, we are left thinking, ought all of us who have been lucky enough to enjoy similar benefits.
Alas, this coda simply doesn’t come through in the Hillbilly Elegy film—and as a result, the movie ends on an uneven note. It’s wonderful that J.D. got out, we’re left thinking, but what about everybody else? Yet the real-world Vance is keenly aware that (for lack of a better turn of phrase) with great privilege and power comes great responsibility. That’s a message that demands internalizing.
None of all this is to suggest that the movie deserves its 22% score on Rotten Tomatoes, though. (The Tomatometer has grown increasingly unreliable as American political polarization has increased.) As mentioned, Adams and Close are superb—and incomplete though its story may be, this Hillbilly Elegy adaptation remains a potent plea to the white-collar world to see those outside its walls as individuals, not simply pieces in some larger narrative or symbols of structural forces.
So too, the film suggests that the complexities of love and loss and family and responsibility cannot be collapsed down into a single sociological or economic account. Certainly, people are products of their communities and environments…but they also have the capacity to make choices and experience the consequences. The line between those two may not be altogether clear, but that’s not to say it doesn’t exist: Hillbilly Elegy wouldn’t ring true if it told a story of either despairing determinism or pure meritocratic struggle.
In the end, I’d have to say that Hillbilly Elegy certainly isn’t an easy watch. But it is a worthwhile one nonetheless.