BNow, a week after its release on Netflix, a critical consensus has emerged: Hillbilly Elegy is a bad movie, possibly one of the worst of the year. That didn’t stop the film, also released in select theaters on November 11, from gaining popularity; it’s one of the 10 most-watched Netflix movies of the past week, possibly due in part to name recognition of its source material, JD Vance’s 2016 memoir of the same name, and in part thanks to two stars. filmmakers Amy Adams and Glenn Close, who dons prosthetics and mom’s jumpsuits for capital-S wrestling roles in what some have noted is the worst kind of bait at the Oscars.
In the weeks following the release of Hillbilly Elegy, many writers have chronicled the set of factors that transformed what was probably a well-meaning project, written by The Shape of Water writer Vanessa Taylor and directed by Ron Howard, in a dismal mess of stereotypes. Among them: Howard’s film undermines Vance’s memories, suppressing any conviction or insight; the memoir itself – of a man who went from a modest upbringing at Yale Law School to work for Peter Thiel before allying himself with marginal conservative blogger Rod Dreher (an alignment erased from the film) – is deeply imperfect; both frustratingly reproduce a panoply of tropes of Appalachian (white) hillbillies; as a movie, Hillbilly Elegy is sort of both histrionic and boring.
To this list I would add that Hillbilly Elegy is extremely bad at its deviation from who and what it is – a caricature of ‘hillbillies’ in a non-rural location but still something else (the majority of the movie is set in Middletown, Ohio, where Vance grew up). This setting is relegated to an ambient, unmoored backdrop of the “real America” in one man’s escape story. As with most pieces of Hollywood attempting to communicate the white working class, or “the other” America, Hillbilly Elegy ultimately says a lot more about her imagined audience and the stories some Americans seek to find in films about the city. economic struggle in the United States, as the people he claims to represent.
Part of this mess is simply the decision to adapt the book, which has been adopted by many experts as a skeleton key to understanding Trump’s victory in 2016, making Vance an overnight figure in the conservative sphere. young, has aged very badly. Bootstraps conservatism aside, Vance’s memoir of his family’s flight from eastern Kentucky to Middletown, Ohio, from a childhood marked by upheaval at the Marines, Ohio State and then Yale Law, were convincing, in the same way any non-celebrity reflected on his arc can be. But it probably would never have been treated on the big screen without the enthusiastic and misguided attention given to the book as the handbook of Trumpism, a handbook that overestimated the poverty of the white working class and made excusable for the racism inherent in its rise.
Neither book nor film, as many writers from Appalachia and other small towns in America have pointed out, reflect the region or a precise vision of the economic struggle in the United States. In fact, the film barely portrays the Appalachians (or at least, Vance’s laudatory white Scottish-Irish population), except for its opening scenes. Aside from the scenes of Vance’s girlfriend in New Haven, and her struggles with unrealistic and incurable Yale elites at the start of the film, the majority of Hillbilly Elegy is set in Middletown, a small town of about 50,000 people in the middle. road between Cincinnati and Dayton in the south. western Ohio.
Middletown certainly struggled with the decline in manufacturing jobs in the 1970s and 1980s, and the 2008 recession, which secretly and unmentioned the double deadlines (Vance’s childhood in the late 90s and his homecoming in 2011) to Hillbilly Elegy. . It is neither rural nor Appalachia, but a place that swirls in and out of vague classifications in America, much like the oft-evangelized “middle class” that increasingly exists, at least in the form of stability and of upward mobility that we suppose to represent. Middletown is, like its name, a float, too big for a small town and not quite a town, a category notoriously hard to pin down on TV and movies, but really a real place with real people. (While part of Hillbilly Elegy was shot in Ohio, the majority of Middletown’s scenes were shot in Georgia, where tax breaks made the state stand in for the non-coastal United States.)
Vance’s book told a story of Middletown in decline that was partly true; it would be difficult to raise a family of five and pay college today on a single postal service salary, as my grandmother’s family did in Middletown in the 1930s and 1940s (with the help, as with so many white families back then, from the GI Bill). Then again, this is difficult all over America today, as what is left of the middle class is being drained by student loans, other debt, and / or medical bills. None of this is directly discussed in the film, and it is streamlined in the book into a conservative argument of personal responsibility and the “hillbilly” cultural issue. But this interest in “understanding” the “real” America, both hazy concepts that crumble on inspection, and having answers for Trump served on a platter, sanitized by racism, systemic injustices or capitalism extractive, certainly informed the general interest in the book. and the film, and the charity readings of the film (see: positive review by conservative ghoul Ben Shapiro, retweeted by Howard as part of the promotion of his film).
Hillbilly Elegy might have been predisposed to be a bad movie, but there is clearly an audience for a movie set in a real location, in recent time, that captures an aspect of the country outside of the big cities, a portrayal of the strange hybrid America in which you can be both middle class and financially precarious for years, in which gentrification and decay, progress and regression coexist and oppose. There are great films to be made in and about the Appalachians or the Middletowns of America. I’d even watch a better Hillbilly Elegy, one that captures the fun, everyday fun between cartoonish fights, as suggested by a series of photos and home videos that accompany the credits. But this Hillbilly Elegy, with her Oscar bait and her road to nowhere, is just the terrible endpoint of a deceptive and superficial reflection.