Discussions of J. D. Vance’s 2016 Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis always gravitate toward the surprises of the year in which it was published. After its release, the book was quickly labeled an “explainer” for President Donald Trump’s political success. It didn’t take long for many to debunk this assumption—Trump’s success was (and is) far too complex a thing to be explained by a single memoir. But ever since, Vance’s story of growing up in the left-behind communities of Appalachia and the Rust Belt has been praised, rebuked, loved, and loathed. It’s been both fairly and unfairly critiqued, and it can be easy, after all these years, to forget what the book was even about.
I hoped Ron Howard’s new film adaptation of Hillbilly Elegy for Netflix would help us remember. Political controversy aside, there’s still much about the book that is universal. There are the issues of poverty, trauma, drug abuse, and violence that plague Americans from all regions and backgrounds, reminding us how much we need to love our neighbor. There’s Vance’s own examination of why people are hurting in Rust Belt communities. And there’s also the reminder that ordinary—and even extraordinarily broken—people have dignity, and are worthy of respect and honor. Vance’s Mamaw; his sister, Lindsay; his mother, Bev; and his aunts and uncles remind us of the complex, astounding beauty and resilience of the human person.
Alas, Howard’s film fails to fully capture these things. At best, it offers us a saccharine version of Hillbilly Elegy, in which even the book’s most traumatic moments feel watered down, and the gut-punching realities of postindustrial collapse and desperate poverty are barely felt, let alone understood. At worst, it caricatures the people who are supposed to exemplify beauty and resilience; the figures in Vance’s story are real, but in this film, they feel more like cartoon characters than actual persons.
One example of this comes at the very beginning: As a young Vance and his family pack up to leave Kentucky after a summer visit to relatives, we learn that his Mamaw (Glenn Close) was impregnated at age 13 by a 16-year-old Papaw. A flashback shows the young Papaw and Mamaw running away to Ohio together. Mamaw’s hair is immaculately curled, the Ohio they greet shiny and new. They look hopeful and excited.
But getting pregnant at 13 is not an innocent adventure. Vance’s book shares the tangled web of violence, betrayal, and fear that prompted Mamaw and Papaw to leave for Ohio all those years ago: the next-door neighbor (Mamaw’s best friend) Papaw cheated on, as well as the possibility that Mamaw’s brothers might take revenge on Papaw for impregnating their sister. None of it is pretty or exciting. Once they arrive in Ohio, Papaw and Mamaw’s troubles continue: Their infant daughter dies at about a week old, and Mamaw struggles with miscarriage after miscarriage in the years that follow. Papaw begins a battle with alcoholism and unfaithfulness that continues until the couple’s three children are grown.
The film touches on Papaw’s alcoholism, but barely. Many of the story’s rough edges feel muted—which, given the film’s R rating, seems unnecessary. Portraying what Mamaw went through is necessary to show her fullness as a human person—her vices and her virtues.
Similarly, Vance’s mother, Bev (Amy Adams), battles addiction and volatility, but her experiences feel at once watered down and glamorized. It is easy, in attempting to show people with addiction struggles, to turn them into villains or victims: to avoid showing either the fullness of their pain, or the fullness of that pain’s consequences. Somehow, Howard manages to do both these things with Bev. The seesaw nature of the mother-son relationship is depicted to some extent. The scene in which Bev, angry with Vance, threatens to wreck her car and kill them both, is poignant and painful. But we get few glimpses of Bev’s full humanity, or any moments of softness. The scenes that show trauma she’s experienced (like when Mamaw lights Papaw on fire!) are surreal, hazy, and over quickly. At other times, her emotions are dialed up to hysterical heights.
The film portrays little of the pride or charisma of Vance’s Appalachian relatives, and spends almost no time in the Kentucky that Vance suggests was his real “home” growing up. The few glimpses we get of Appalachia at the beginning of the movie “tell” as much about poverty as a drive-by shot might accomplish: junk in yards, people wearing dirty or worn-out clothing. When the Middletown, Ohio, of Mamaw and Papaw’s youth is juxtaposed with present-day Middletown, we’re given all the signposts of postindustrial decay (boarded-up shop windows, the shell of an old mill) without any nuance, without any explanation as to how or why things got this way. This could be because Howard is trying to ensure the film is not politicized. But it ends up tearing away some of the story’s reality.
It’s hard to say whether poverty is ever fully portrayed in Howard’s film. As Alissa Wilkinson notes, it often feels like a rich person’s stereotyped perception of poverty is on offer. Vance’s sister Lindsay is shown for several seconds washing plastic forks. We see fried bologna sandwiches, sinks full of dishes, the aforementioned junk-filled yards, Mamaw stacking cans of soda in her pantry. Yet when a teenage Vance crashes his Mamaw’s car—which would be anxiety-inducing for most elderly women depending on food support—we never see the consequences.
As Wilkinson writes, there’s something degrading and alarming about the fact that Glenn Close said playing Mamaw was “not all that different from other characters she’d played in ‘full drag,’ such as Cruella de Vil, Norma Desmond, or Albert Nobbs—all larger-than-life caricatures of one kind or another.” Mamaw is the sort of comforting, stern, frizzy-haired elderly grandmother many Americans would recognize. Yet to Close (and seemingly to Howard), Mamaw is a caricature.
What’s more, because we see Ohio through Vance’s adult eyes—via flashbacks and scenes in which he’s already become “one of the kids who left”—it seems that Yale is the world we are meant to see as real and “normal” in this film. When he returns home, or remembers his childhood, Vance temporarily leaves behind the “ordinary” for a decrepit, broken-down Rust Belt. Howard presents Vance’s conversations with his girlfriend, Usha (Freida Pinto), as moments of temporary respite from the strangeness of this heartland world.
Yet working-class and middle-class life in a state like Ohio or Kentucky is the one most of us know and love. Few of us get to go to an Ivy League university or law school; it’s that elite world that is surreal for most Americans. The few who get to sit around fancy dinner tables sipping expensive wines (the group Chris Arnade has called “front row America”) are far outnumbered by those who know what it’s like to host a last-minute backyard barbecue and run out of hot dog buns. Here, as elsewhere, Howard shows his distance from the world he’s trying to portray.
In Hill Women—a memoir also set in Appalachian Kentucky and at Yale University—author Cassie Chambers notes that “[O]utsiders who rush into the hills don’t always take the time to see that mountain people are a creative, resourceful lot. They don’t understand that Appalachians can be—should be—partners in the effort to make their lives better. . . . If there’s one thing that women in these hills know how to do, it’s get things done.”
Many moments throughout Vance’s memoir show this creativity and resourcefulness. Vance experienced horrible things as a child. But he also had a village: a community of people who were savvy, kind, and generous. He says in his memoir that he only discovered “social capital” while at Yale. In reality, however, you can see the threads of social capital (frail though they may be at times) throughout Vance’s story—in the tender care of his sister, the steely gumption of Mamaw, the kindness of his aunt. These are the people I wanted to see and celebrate in Howard’s film.
As John Miller notes in his review of the film, poverty is central to the gospel—and “we cannot get to know the poor without telling stories about them.” But stories about poverty become empty, saccharine, or exploitative when they “dehumanize their subjects by painting them in their worst light, cutting out slices of health and prosperity around them, and omitting important historical and sociological context.” In the past few years, books like Chris Arnade’s Dignity, Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland, and Cassie Chambers’s Hill Women have reminded us that what we owe poor and working-class Americans (no matter their regional background or political allegiance) is respect and dignity: a full and clear-eyed look at the problems that plague them, compassion and empathy that are neither condescending nor smug.
Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy could have given us this message. I think some will see hints of it beneath the surface. But I still feel we are owed better films about Appalachia and the Rust Belt—about the “back row Americans” who are at once incredibly ordinary and incredibly extraordinary. More important: We owe them better films than this one.
Gracy Olmstead is a freelance writer and author of the forthcoming book Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We've Left Behind.
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