Movies

Netflix's Hillbilly Elegy Is a Movie Afraid of the Book It's Based on

J.D. Vance's memoir was an inherently political story. The film tries to ignore its context.

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When J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy was released in summer 2016, it quickly became an object of fascination: Donald Trump was in the process of claiming the Republican presidential nomination, surprising observers both inside and outside the party who believed he had no chance. While few at that point expected Trump to win the election, his nomination left a kind of anxious uncertainty in the air—particularly about the rural, less-educated people who had backed him in large numbers. What kind of a person, what kind of an American, had voted for Donald Trump? 

There was at least a little bit of condescension to these sorts of questions or, at the very least, a disconnect. The people who covered politics for a living did not understand the lives of many of the voters who had selected a major party presidential nominee. 

Vance's memoir of growing up with modest means in Appalachia under the wing of a drug-addicted mother and a tough, violent grandmother offered a way in. Vance had struggled under erratic parenting and unstable living conditions before eventually joining the Marines, attending a state college, and, eventually, Yale Law School. He'd shed his self-defeating hillbilly habits and could offer critical insight into the world he'd been born into.  

His book was thus taken as an empathetic, self-critical explanation of their culture, their inclinations, and their flaws from someone who had grown up in that milieu and found a way out. In the headline to a generous, mostly positive review, The New York Times called it "a tough love analysis of the poor who back Trump."

Trump's political ascendancy had raised big questions about America's political psyche: Vance's book had a distinctive conservative tilt, but it also had answers. 

Trump won the election. The book became a bestseller. Vance was lauded for his insight into the Trump-supporting, working-class Appalachian voters who had proved so critical to the president's shock victory. The book was optioned for a cinematic treatment: The phenomenon would become a movie. 

That movie arrives today on Netflix, just in time for awards season. Directed by Ron Howard and starring Amy Adams as Vance's mother Bev, and Glenn Close as his grandmother Mamaw, the movie is certainly a product of top-notch Hollywood talent. Yet it doesn't work at all. 

The operating theory behind the adaptation seems to have been: What if we took all of the aspects of the book that made people interested—the cultural insights and self-criticism, the ethnographic examination of dysfunctional Appalachian life and its unspoken codes—and completely stripped it away? 

The book was a phenomenon because it was an object of sociopolitical fascination. It was treated as a field guide to what was essentially a foreign culture (at least to a lot of urban, college-educated professionals) hidden in the American hinterlands. The movie, in contrast, is a context-free, episodic story of one guy's adolescent struggles with a difficult family. In the end, he goes to college. That's it. 

It doesn't help that, on-screen, that one guy is bland and boring; the movie's Vance is played with schlubby dullness by Gabriel Basso and Owen Asztalos, neither of whom have the charisma to stand up to the fireworks produced by Close and Adams. And though both actresses deliver committed performances, the screenplay by Vanessa Williams gives them precious little to play except scene after scene of histrionics. It's repetitive and context-less. There's no arc or narrative drive. The movie repeatedly shows us that they are erratic and difficult; it never hints at the reason why. 

Howard may be to blame. At this point, he's been making movies for more than three decades, and he is, if nothing else, one of Hollywood's most reliable project managers: He was brought in to salvage the remains of the Han Solo spinoff, Solo: A Star Wars Story, after the original directors were fired mid-production, and he has a long history of producing solid, competent, occasionally cheesy, populist entertainments with strong performances at their center. 

His movies are, above all, studiously inoffensive. Here, he seems to have decided that the book's political context might spark controversy, turning off some viewers. In some ways that's understandable, given the tendency of some filmmakers to put politics at the center of their movies at the expense of all else. But the political context was what drew people to Hillbilly Elegy in the first place, what turned it into an event. Without that context, it's not about anything at all; it's just a story of a kid with a rough home life who eventually gets into Yale. 

The movie is so studiously apolitical that it seems afraid to have a point or an argument or an idea about the world, which in turn makes it seem afraid of the book it's based on. Instead of adapting the book's ideas to the screen, it just ignores them, pretending they don't exist. Notably, Vance's military service, a formative life event that in his own telling taught him diligence and discipline, is largely absent, making Vance's transformation from troubled kid to star student even more mysterious. Coming now, in the twilight of Trump's presidency, Howard's Hillbilly Elegy isn't just a film without any answers; it's a film that's too timid to even ask any questions. 

NEXT: Instead of Policing Thanksgiving, Governments Should Get Their Own Act Together

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  3. Amy Adams.

    1. She was even hot in Doubt.

      1. there are barely words.

  4. One mans story is not the story of every Trump voter.

    1. For real estate purposes, Appalachia now covers half of America from coast to coast.

      1. For CNN reporting purposes real estate purposes, Appalachia now covers half of America from coast to coast.

        FTFY

        1. Actually, for CNN, anywhere outside metro areas or all red counties.

          1. Truth be told, it seems for a lot of the pissmaggots, anywhere that is not a uni campus or major metro conurbation is a red county, deserving of derision and 0 funding.

      2. But, can one get good biscuits or scrapple?

        1. I grew up in the South and went to uni in Philly. Scrapple does not exist in Appalachia or the South, it is an urban Philly thing. I never saw biscuits (with gravy) until breakfast at a truck stop on the PA turnpike. We eat grits for bfast in the South.

    2. There was an article on Cracked, of all places, that showed more insight into why the working class swayed to Trump in 2016 than Hillbilly Elegy managed to do.

      One of the most notable reasons was that, while urbanite lefties like to think of themselves as the District 13 Reeeeeeeeesistance types, what they really are is the residents of the Capitol who depend on the residents of the hinterlands for everything that makes their lives comfortable.

      1. It is quite the marketing/propaganda trick the left manages to pull and convince lefty urbanites and younger generations that they are some kind of counter-culture rebels fighting the man. When they have the support of pretty much all major corporations, the mainstream news media and the government and foreign policy establishment and are very much “the Man”.

        1. They think it’s particularly heroic to hate the one group it’s alright to vilify.

          1. That’s another good point. It’s perfectly OK to be bigoted towards “white trash”. Even though they face pretty much all of the disadvantages that other poor minorities do. I’d bet a lot of money that you will face a lot more employment discrimination from having a hillbilly accent and speech patterns than from having dark skin.

            1. Yeah, it’s not a race issue, it’s a class issue. A poor person is going to have a much harder time advancing in society because they’re already behind the curve in most respects. It’s certainly possible, as Vance came from that background, but unless you’re a star athlete you’re going to have a much tougher row to hoe overall. And even the star athletes tend to flame out because they typically show the poor future-time orientation in adulthood that keeps the lower classes from improving their lot very much.

              1. And that is why I so abhor BLM and other social justice idiots. They insist that we must ignore the actual things that are keeping people from getting ahead and focus on their bizarre notion of racism. Even though all of these problems (including being whomped on by the cops) correlate far more strongly with economic class than with race.

                1. No, no, no, no. A successful black doctor suffers much more than a white high school dropout addicted to meth with no job skills. Because the meth addict can walk into a redneck bar and not get dirty looks.

                  1. Crikey. It’s mostly quiet now, but get a hardcore Dworkinite feminist going. Any woman has it tougher than any man, hands down.

              2. People can’t seem to be able to separate the two anymore. So we get comments like: “poor kids
                are as good as white kids.”

        2. Those sewers don’t dig themselves.
          Those power lines don’t build and maintain themselves.
          Those trucks don’t drive themselves.
          That cargo doesn’t unload itself.

          1. Raises some interesting questions as to why white liberals and neocons are so keen on importing tens of millions of Central American immigrants do all that work, doesn’t it?

          2. It wasn’t done by douchebags with man-buns wearing skinny pants using apps on iphones? Who knew?

      2. “urbanite lefties like to think of themselves as the District 13 Reeeeeeeeesistance types, what they really are is the residents of the Capitol who depend on the residents of the hinterlands for everything that makes their lives comfortable.”

        This statement “nails it”. I grew up with the intellectual snobbery associated with the East Coast “Capital” mentality. It’s TRUE. I was raised to believe that we were just “smarter” than certain other (white) folks. And we virtue-signaled like crazy: It’s easy to be “anti-racist” when you are in a cushy, basically segregated enclave. I grew up and got out and learned some valuable lessons, like how education doesn’t necessarily equal intelligence, for starters. As a “recovered Ivory Tower progressive”, I can tell you they are a judgey, sanctimonious, smug bunch. And they are clueless.

        1. I lived in both white-bread suburbia and a quasi-ghetto neighborhood growing up, and it’s telling how many of my far-left acquaintances from childhood decided to settle in “good” school districts in the Denver metro area that just happen to be majority white. I know of one–just one–who actually lives in downtown Denver and whose stepdaughter goes to DPS.

          Most white liberals LOVE diversity, when they don’t have to live near it. To them, diversity is an exercise in political tokenism and materialism. Put these people in an “ethnic” neighborhood, like the ones in north Aurora, or west/northeast Denver, for about five years. They’d come out of it more racist than a Klansman.

      3. It’s almost like they were still teenagers.

      4. Yes. If we could isolate the cities and the rural areas, only one would have live people after a few months.

  5. While few at that point expected Trump to win the election, his nomination left a kind of anxious uncertainty in the air—particularly about the rural, less-educated people who had backed him in large numbers

    The Reverend does film reviews now?

  6. I suspect that Hollywood just could not echo some of the major points that Vance made: that despite their flaws, hillbillies are real people who try to deal with life, make their own decisions, and at least claim to take care of their own. Add in some stereotypes about rejecting government and the left coast progressives would much rather produce more comic book movies than anything even vaguely realistic about Appalachia, let alone complimentary.

  7. The left wingers in Hollywood haven’t made a good movie or TV show in decades.

    Why would anyone expect them to make a decent movie about a book written by a conservative?

    And why would anyone expect a left wing movie critic to say anything good about anything written by a conservative?

    But of course, Hollywood praised and gave an award to Andrew Cuomo for killing several thousand New Yorkers with covid.

    1. “The left wingers in Hollywood haven’t made a good movie or TV show in decades.”

      The last one I can think of was Babylon 5. The top guy is a liberal atheist, who wrote solid stories that showed people not like him as solid, whole characters, not cardboard cutouts.

  8. There was at least a little bit of condescension to these sorts of questions or, at the very least, a disconnect.

    Only a bit.

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  11. If Hollywood ever actually made a movie about real Red State folks they might find out that we aren’t all “uneducated and poor,” and they might have to deal with some of our questions.
    For instance, if progressivism has all the answers why can’t California’s Green New Deal keep people’s lights and refrigerators running? Why were all the social justice reform “peaceful demonstrations” in cities Democrats have been “reforming” for generations? And why so many people are moving from Blue States to Red States and trying to convince us to implement the programs that ruined the states they fled from?
    The difference between Blue and Red is that progressives learn from their elite college professors, and we learn from their mistakes.

  12. This is too bad. The book was awesome and thought provoking. No wonder it gets effectively cancelled by Hollywood.

  13. Surprisingly I am connected to this interesting forum, and I started to look at this movie on Netflix. I am in France, near Orléans.
    This forum in a good idea to understand the American society, I say.
    The Reds are “rednecks”. and not the Reds “communists, USSR…
    In my place, agricultural area, more than 50% of voters choose the populist party, nationalist. And I am a retired guy from Paris… the other world.
    This is a similar system. Trump is not a good guy, he could have succeed in 2020 election, but made big mistakes.
    I believe that he is linked to Mr Giuliani, some secrets, and are desperately in demand to hide them… We’ll see later.
    My neighbors are like the “reds”, farmers, masons, carpenters… I discuss with them, explains geopolitics, that we cannot shoot migrants at view, problems are different.
    But I agree with them, when you have a property, you cannot accept to have it taken, destroyed, occupied by other people.
    Difficult to manage a country and satisfy all, Human rights, Justice…

    1. Somehow, he left off the part about ‘work at home for $90 an hour.

  14. Somehow, he left off the part about ‘work at home for $90 an hour.

  15. Now i know how this happens.

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