Hillbilly Elegy, the movie

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance is one the most worthwhile books I’ve read in recent years. It’s a riveting account of Vance’s family as it moved from the hills of Kentucky to an Ohio steel town — Middletown — where it struggled to fulfill some semblance of the American Dream.

Hillbilly Elegy is also a sociological study of Middletown and its “hill” population. The story had special resonance for me because one of my best friends at law school was from Middletown, where his father was an executive with Armco Steel, the town’s economic anchor. I visited Middletown briefly in 1975.

At that time, Middletown was prosperous. However, it fell on hard times due to the American steel industry crisis of the 1990s. The economic hollowing out had a devastating impact on Middletown’s working class. One impact was drug addiction on a large scale.

In a sense, the story is a familiar one, replicated throughout the rust belt. Yet, key aspects of the story — especially its human side — were unfamiliar to many, including me, until Vance published his book.

Now, “Hillbilly Elegy” is a movie. I watched it last night on Netflix.

The film, a Ron Howard production, removes virtually all of the book’s sociology. It focuses entirely on the story of Vance, his mother, and his maternal grandmother. The plot centers on the mother’s addiction and Vance’s quest, while a student at Yale law school, to obtain a summer clerkship with a prestigious law firm even as he becomes preoccupied with trying to help his mother who has just overdosed.

We learn almost nothing about Middletown and very little about its hillbilly population. There is no indication that the mother’s addiction is part a drug epidemic, although we can infer this.

What we get is a Hollywood melodrama. It’s not really a bad movie in my opinion, but it’s not a worthwhile one. If you read the book, there’s not much reason to see the movie unless you like to grumble. If you haven’t read the book, you might enjoy the movie, depending on your tastes, but you won’t get much out of it.

The film has not received favorable reviews from critics — far from it — although the audience reviews are pretty good. Glenn Reynolds thinks the critics’ negativity is politically based.

That seems odd because, with the sociology removed, “Hillbilly Elegy” is almost devoid of political content. However, Reynolds correctly observes that “these days, everything coming from the left is political.”

Where Reynolds may be wrong is in his claim that the very depiction of hill people — “deplorables” — in a sympathetic light upsets liberal film critics. That’s not what I take away from the reviews I’ve read.

The review on Roger Ebert.com is similar to my thinking about the movie, but more sympathetic. The reviewer gives it two-and-a-half stars (half a star more than I would have), and writes:

The film version of J.D. Vance’s memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” arrives on Netflix so encumbered by cultural baggage and expectations that it’s hard to appreciate what it actually is—along with the things it does well, which are numerous, and understated enough to vanish in the haze of the zeitgeist.

It’s not a great or even particularly distinctive movie, but it’s heartfelt and plain-spoken enough that it might connect with viewers whose families have dealt with addiction and recovery, domestic abuse, financial deprivation, and other problems highlighted in the story. . . .

“Hillbilly Elegy” has little interest in making sweeping statements about the historical roots of white, working class, Republican Rust Belt grievances against so-called “Blue America.”. . . .

I wanted a bigger, bolder, more imaginative take on this material than “Hillbilly Elegy” is willing or able to deliver. But there’s still a lot to like here. . .

This critic panned the film, but on cinematic grounds, not for being sympathetic to “deplorables.”

This left-wing critic hated that the film didn’t blame the woes of Vance’s family on corporate greed and conservative public policies. He also complains that the filmmakers are elitists who “lack empathy for the working class.” Right or wrong, this grievance isn’t based on contempt by the critic for “deplorables.”

Vox’s critic calls Hillbilly Elegy “possibly the worst movie I’ve seen in years.” She complains that it’s “distractingly Hollywoodified, a rich person’s idea of what it is like to be a poor person, a tone-deaf attempt to assuage a very particular kind of liberal guilt by reifying the very thing that caused the guilt in the first place.”

I’m not sure what this critic means, exactly, by the last part of that sentence, but she is not looking down on the white working class. In fact, she associates herself with that class, and with Vance, saying that her family origins are similar to his and that she too was the first in her family to attend college — and at an “elite institution.”

However, she finds the depiction of the white working class off key. So did conservative Kyle Smith in his review for NRO. He argued that, while Vance’s book rings true in this regard, the movie adaptation does not.

Finally, consider the Washington Post’s review called, ungrammatically, “Hillbilly Elegy is almost laughably bad — if it weren’t so melodramatic.” The critic complains that the film speaks out of both sides of its mouth:

From one side of its mouth, the film tries to suggest that the values J.D. was imbued with — perseverance, self-sufficiency — fueled his success. . .From the other side of its mouth, the film hints that J.D. is who he is because he’s something of an anomaly: a chubby, ambitious, fact-spewing nerd. . . .

There is no contradiction here. It might be the case that, for someone in Vance’s position, both perseverance and nerdlike qualities were needed to succeed. (Actually, I think that’s the case for many of us.)

In the passage I quoted, the Post’s critic is trying to find political lessons in a film that has drained them from the book. Later, though, he acknowledges that the film “eschews theories” and he complains about that.

It’s a rather incoherent review that, per Reynolds, does take a brief shot at “Appalachian values.” But after reading at least a dozen critical reviews, I don’t find that the critics’ quarrel with “Hillbilly Elegy” is based on unhappiness that hillbillies are portrayed sympathetically.

Instead, the complaints, when not purely cinematic, tend to be that the portrayal lacks depth and nuance — a grievance that’s not without basis.

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