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Why does Hillbilly Elegy feel so inauthentic and performative?

Three critics from rural places discuss Ron Howard’s Netflix adaptation of J.D. Vance’s bestseller.

Glenn Close, playing Mamaw, wears a T-shirt and large glasses.
Glenn Close in Hillbilly Elegy.
Lacey Terrell/Netflix

The reviews for Ron Howard’s Netflix adaptation of J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy (including Vox’s) have not been kind. That’s largely because the movie is not good. Not only is it a surprising clunker to watch, it also fails to compensate for flaws in its source material (facile ideas about “hillbillies,” a not-very-interesting protagonist) while introducing new problem of its own (baffling narrative structure, forehead-slapping dialogue, and plot devices).

Three of Vox’s critics, all of whom grew up in different parts of rural and largely white America, were particularly astounded by the movie’s failure. So we — Aja Romano, Alissa Wilkinson, and Emily VanDerWerff — got together to (virtually) sort out what on earth happened with this disaster of a film.

Alissa Wilkinson: Aja, Emily, I think we may have all had the same reaction to Hillbilly Elegy as we watched it — confusion followed by bafflement, then horror, then something like fury. Having seen the trailer and the posters, I expected it to be condescending toward its characters. Hollywood movies rarely manage to represent anyone with an accent and a pickup truck as less than a caricature.

But I wasn’t expecting it to be so ... boring. Or confusing! As I noted in my review, the movie is both constantly explosive — people scream, rage, get literally set on fire — and shockingly dull.

When it ended I just kind of stared at the screen, amazed that I’d just seen the worst movie of the last few years at least, and that it had so much well-meaning talent attached to it, from director Ron Howard to writer Vanessa Taylor to stars Glenn Close and Amy Adams.

What did you think as you watched it? And what do you think happened here?

Aja: What didn’t I think? As a hillbilly born and raised (in rural west Tennessee), I’m very used to seeing rural American life painted with broad strokes. Every scene of Hillbilly Elegy is designed to mix the laziest form of pathos with the laziest form of social commentary and present it with the most condescending tone of profundity, and y’all, I could have been rewatching Winter’s Bone instead of this patronizing mush. But like Alissa said, I was mostly prepared for that. I wasn’t prepared for this film’s sheer quixotic nothingness.

Apart from the extremely lazy way the film shorthands its characters through regional and class stereotypes, Hillbilly Elegy is an incoherent, meandering, misogynistic tangle of vanishing subplots and vague ideas. I hesitate to even call them subplots since that suggests a plot arc to begin with. For example, I honestly spent the whole movie wondering why the opening leaned so heavily on the narrator’s childhood summers in Kentucky — his seminal time spent with “my people,” a phrase he said over and over again like Moses freeing the Israelites — even though we never returned to Kentucky or his extended family again. Our hero, real-life memoirist J.D. Vance, spent most of the film treating “his people” like shit.

A grandmother holds her grandson by the shoulders.
Haley Bennett, Glenn Close, and Owen Asztalos in Hillbilly Elegy.
Lacey Terrell/Netflix

J.D. is easily the most loathsome protagonist since Holden Caulfield. He’s unfunny, abrasive, self-righteous, constantly selfish, and completely clueless. Yet Hillbilly Elegy rewards him over and over again by framing him as the calmest, most reasonable person in the room despite all evidence to the contrary — like when he tried to wedge his teenage body under a small coffee table or decided on a whim, without telling anybody, to make a 20-hour round trip drive from Yale to Ohio to see his convalescing mother the day before a job interview that supposedly represented his only chance to avoid being unable to pay his college tuition.

(As an aside, you can tell when privileged rich people who’ve never been poor write screenplays about being poor, because they always include scenes where the poor person’s credit card is awkwardly declined, as J.D.’s is when he tries to buy gas during his road trip. In reality, when you’re poor, you know every cent you have in the bank, down to the last penny, and you have already calculated exactly how much gas you can put in your car and how far that gas will get you before you run out of money. The only people who think poor people are surprised when they run out of money are people who think poor people are poor because they’re bad with money. But really, a lot of poor people are great with money, and Hillbilly Elegy not knowing that is just one of the zillion ways it sucks.)

J.D., who is apparently smart enough to hop-skip-jump into Yale Law (the movie barely covers his college career), is not smart enough to know that literally everything he does on his dramatic trip back to Ohio could just as easily be accomplished with a couple of phone calls — and he would have been significantly less fucked and significantly less passive-aggressively bitchy about it. Then again, this is a guy who thinks that being a teenage political wonk who disses Whitney Houston makes him a unique soul worthy of being lifted out of poverty into a better world full of salad forks and basic white wine selections, instead of an insufferable douchebag who thinks he’s better than everybody else. (Also, for the record, my rural American grandmother cherished her Old Country Rose china set and taught all her progeny how to properly lay out the place settings for holiday dinners, so fuck this movie.)

J.D. is self-righteously smug at everyone around him. He’s smug about his mother’s ongoing battle with her opioid addiction. He’s smug about his grandmother’s bad parenting and his sister’s life choices. He’s smug about how drugs are bad for you, right up until he inexplicably about-faces and starts doing pot, smoking, and committing small felonies with his group of low-life friends — except then he’s smug about that, too.

Because Hillbilly Elegy is so intent on cramming in every single stereotype of vanishing rural American life that it can, the film lightly crayons over the details of J.D.’s life in a way that undermines its insistence that J.D. is the hero. For instance, in the middle of a drunken attempt to vandalize a local factory, he first steals, then crashes, his grandmother’s car. He also risks a jail sentence. Given how poor his grandmother seems to be, this setback might have seriously jeopardized her ability to care for herself and her family — yet we’re never shown his actions having any detrimental effect on the rest of the family. J.D. never has to pay his grandmother back for the damage to her car. And he inexplicably escapes jail time; the movie never explains how.

All this drama inexplicably resolves itself at the end of the film through a vague montage covering half of J.D.’s life that glosses over him getting through a stint in the military, completely skips over his four years of undergrad at Ohio State, and includes the death of his grandmother. This strange and non-thematic sequence is supposed to be the catalyst for J.D.’s great sweeping, life-changing realization — which is, wait for it, that he can’t live his life for his mother.

A two women and a man sit in a waiting room.
Haley Bennett, Gabriel Basso, and Amy Adams in Hillbilly Elegy.
Lacey Terrell/Netflix

Which is hilarious, because all he’s done up until that point is act like a selfish prick who’s ashamed and embarrassed about where he came from and desperate to escape his entire family. Hillbilly Elegy frames its female characters as obstacles that keep happening to J.D., driving him deeper into his own narcissistic spiral of doubt and emotional upheaval. They’re all problems he has to solve, even his girlfriend — who, even though she’s a Yale grad student, has to have the seriousness of a heroin addiction explained to her like she’s from Mars — by, who else? J.D.

Guys, I hate him so much.

Emily: The book Hillbilly Elegy was a bit of an oddity. I read it in 2016, and though I didn’t hate it, I felt baffled by the reputation it had established as a book that “explained” Trump country — which is to say poor, rural white folks. Having grown up in a heavily rural, heavily white area (though in South Dakota, not Appalachia), I recognized a lot of the basic character types the real J.D. Vance talked about, and I recognized the affection in which he held his grandparents, especially. But overall, the book was a fairly mediocre memoir with some “just pull yourself up by your bootstraps!” nonsense at the end.

So I was doubly surprised after the election, when Hillbilly Elegy was pressed on America by assorted media outlets as the book that would help everyone understand what had happened. But watching the movie, I think I understood that insistence on the book’s importance a lot more. In both book and movie, J.D. is someone who escapes his station merely by having a lot of gumption and drive. The book is not a pure inspirational story like the movie wants to be, but the core of one is there: See, if you’re poor and live in a rural area, you have the means to escape. You just have to want it bad enough!

Hillbilly Elegy, in book form especially, situates the solution for any problems bedeviling rural America in the individual, not in the collective. And to be sure, one reason I left my tiny farming community was that I really did want to go off to the big city and make it as a writer, which required some degree of gumption and drive. But another reason I left was that my family had enough money to send me to college, because I went to a state school at a time when such a thing was affordable, and because I was afforded a ton of opportunities due to my race and the gender people perceived me as at the time.

We can pretend all we want that people like J.D. Vance and people like me are people who just worked hard enough to make it, because on one level, we are. I don’t want to run down all of the hard work I did to get where I am. But suggesting that’s the only reason we’ve made it absolves the intended audience of Hillbilly Elegy — well-meaning white people in the upper classes — from thinking about how there might be systemic reasons for the collapse of rural America. It’s just a bunch of people who are lazy, see?! And that’s a classist nightmare.

A woman stands in a kitchen, looking annoyed.
Glenn Close in Hillbilly Elegy.
Lacey Terrell/Netflix

The film largely avoids being a classist nightmare by having no larger political point whatsoever. It’s just extremely thin gruel that strips away everything but the supposed inspirational heart of Vance’s story. It feels, for all the world, like the movie generated by a neural net that had been fed every Best Picture nominee since 1992 and every New York Times piece about trying to understand Trump voters. It understands rural poverty mostly via iconography — rundown houses and kids in swimming holes and the like.

But does it have anything to say about rural poverty? Nah. Though it does have what amounts to a neoliberalism Rocky montage, where J.D. learns to do hard work and rise through the ranks of capitalism, to kick off its third act!

Alissa: And that montage is prompted by a revelation over a chicken breast!

I read the book after I saw the movie — I felt I had to, because I suspected there was no possible way the book could have been that bad. (I think I was right.) The way you describe it is more or less how I feel about it, Emily: It’s a book that somewhat accidentally became touted as some kind of skeleton key to “unlocking Trumpism,” when it truly is nothing of the sort. It is underdeveloped, too. I felt like whoever pushed it through to publication must have been unfamiliar with the world Vance describes and enamored with it — as if it were a glimpse into a world that’s exotic and strange — and consequently missed that it’s pretty half-baked. The book also commits what I think of as the cardinal memoir rule: With vanishingly few exceptions, the writer of a memoir should never be the hero of the story. (The movie can’t escape that, though it sort of tries to cast Mamaw as the hero, I suppose.)

All three of us have lots of firsthand experience and personal connections with rural, working class white people. Aja, you’ve mentioned some of this already, but when you think of the ways the movie depicts this demographic versus what you know, where do you see divergence?

Aja: Everywhere? So much of what this movie tried to frame as being somehow representative of rural America is not unique to growing up in the country or in a small town. Emotionally abusive parents, domestic violence, undiagnosed mental illness, drug addiction, having Forrest Gump be the last movie shown in your dilapidated small town movie theatre, having childhood trauma because your mother set your alcoholic father on fire at Christmastime and left you to extinguish the flames against a backdrop of “O, Holy Night” — none of these things are tragic symptoms of vanishing rural American life. Honestly, I could have been rewatching The Last Picture Show.

There were so many bizarre moments where it felt like screenwriter Vanessa Taylor was adding random details just to add them. Why did the movie treat Kentucky and Ohio like two completely different universes when they share a border and have very similar demographics? Why did the characters keep encountering hillbilly prejudice, even in their own hillbilly town? How did the personal flaws of Papaw, grievous though they were, consign him to being a member of a fascist robot army in his wife’s Terminator metaphor, which sounded an awful lot like someone wanted to adapt the Dungeons and Dragons Alignment Chart for 1997 but failed miserably?

Why did this movie seem to take place in a world without any type of child welfare services — or, for that matter, so little medical care? For the record, 50 plus rural counties across both Kentucky and Ohio have been expanding their opioid rehab centers and counseling programs, with one project specifically targeting Appalachia — meaning that despite what Hillbilly Elegy would have you believe, people in Appalachia can probably find rehab assistance near them — and probably would have had some sort of access in 2007, when the later part of Hillbilly Elegy is set.

This movie’s soundscape was also so weird to me, because it was so atonally at odds with the rest of the film. Appalachian folk music and modern country music — which in the ’90s enjoyed radio saturation across the country — would have been a constant part of the background of these people’s lives. But apart from the vaguely Ashokan Farewell nature of Hillbilly Elegy’s gorgeous score, which was composed by David Fleming and Hans Zimmer, nothing in the movie sounded like rural America. Visually, Hillbilly Elegy wanted to trap me inside of an Iris Dement song full of folk themes about waning country life — but clearly didn’t know enough about its rural sonic landscape to do so. Not a single LeAnn Rimes reference? No “Fancy” or “Friends in Low Places” singalong? What kind of white trash fantasy are we running here, anyway?

Emily: Garth Brooks’s music is apparently incredibly difficult to license, alas. (Though this reminds me of when one of my friends married a woman from New Jersey, and when the DJ played “Friends in Low Places,” all of us South Dakotans started belting it out while the New Jersey folks looked on in confusion.)

In reading both of your reactions to this movie’s script, I’ve realized that it is trapped between two dominant impulses moviemakers seem to have when adapting a book. The first is to liberally change the story so that it works better onscreen, where the risk is removing some ineffable magic that made the source material work in the first place. The second is to try to remain so faithful as to include everything (a.k.a. the approach used by the first two Harry Potter films). The risk there is that you’ll bore the hell out of everyone who’s not already a diehard fan.

Hillbilly Elegy kinda tries to have it both ways, to its detriment. The film contains several elements from the book that are taken as givens within the book’s world — like the cultural divide between Kentucky and Ohio — but without the context the book provided, which makes them seem like they’ve arrived from nowhere.

The film also dramatically alters its source material, trying to turn Mamaw into the story’s protagonist, while still remaining too wedded to that source material. It just can’t let go of some of the book’s most memorable moments, even when it has to contort itself to fit everything in. Taylor’s script aims for verisimilitude but forgets to provide detail, which results in a two-hour movie that feels like a J.D. Vance stan’s supercut of a 10-hour miniseries. Or, as Mashable’s Angie Han put it:

Maybe the most damning thing about this movie is that it ends with home video footage of the real Vance’s family, so we can ooh and ahh at how the filmmakers turned Glenn Close and Amy Adams into carbon-copy replicas of the real-life women they play. But why would we care? These are not beloved historical figures! They’re people in a book!

If Hillbilly Elegy the book had a larger point, it was, “In this life, you can only count on yourself.” If the movie has a larger point, it’s: “Sometimes, you have to cut people loose when they’re dragging you down.” And honestly, I completely believe that’s true! We don’t have nearly enough art about how hard but how necessary it is to end toxic family relationships before they turn cancerous. The scene where J.D. finally lets go of his mom and accepts that he can’t save her is at least theoretically powerful. But the movie doesn’t even follow up on that one powerful moment, quickly shoehorning in an inspirational ending and reminding us that Vance’s mother is now six years sober, lest we worry for a second that something bad happened to anybody in this tale.

I mostly watched Hillbilly Elegy wishing that both the book and the movie had a point-of-view other than Vance’s to rely on. I would love to see the version of this story about J.D.’s sister Lindsey, as it seems like she carved out a great life for herself under even more difficult circumstances than J.D. Or I’d love to see a version that compared and contrasted J.D.’s experiences with those of his girlfriend (and eventual wife) Usha, the daughter of Indian immigrants, to provide two different viewpoints on rising through the American class system at a time when doing so is more difficult than ever.

Mostly, I just wanted this movie to have a point-of-view. I’m not sure it does.

Alissa: At this moment, I can’t tell whether we’re going to be talking about this movie all the way up until the Oscars (which won’t happen until April 2021, thanks to the pandemic), or whether it will mercifully fade out of view. But I do know it’s brought Hillbilly Elegy, the book, back into the public conversation.

And so lately, I’ve found myself recommending other, better books in its stead. Probably the best is Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, which feels oddly more acquainted with poor, white, “red” America than Hillbilly Elegy ever does, even though Hochschild is a highly respected sociologist from UC Berkeley. She paints an empathetic portrait of her subjects (in Louisiana, though her argument seems broadly applicable) via the prevailing narrative that animates them versus urban liberals, even those in a similar class. It’s a highly readable book, and I think about it all the time.

If you were to pick one book or movie or show or something else to recommend to people in Hillbilly Elegy’s stead, what would it be?

A girl sits with a bloodied lip, looking into the distance.
Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone.
Roadside Attractions

Aja: I’ve mentioned The Last Picture Show and Winter’s Bone already, and they’re both masterpieces. But if we’re sticking with strictly “hillbilly” culture, it has to be Winter’s Bone — the bleak, beautiful Ozark noir that drew Oscar nods for director Debra Granik and actor John Hawkes, and launched its star Jennifer Lawrence’s career.

Winter’s Bone tells the story of a determined 17-year-old named Ree who embarks on the darkest hero’s quest: She has to find her missing father in order to keep her family’s house — and keep her family together. To do that, she must navigate a world of drug lords and secrets and somehow uncover the truth without winding up dead. And she has to do it almost entirely alone.

The general public mainly knows Lawrence through her goofy celeb persona and later career choices, but in Winter’s Bone, she turns in a performance that’s just about perfect. The poverty-ridden community we see in Winter’s Bone is squalid to a degree you’d never find in a movie like Hillbilly Elegy, but Granik’s camera frames it unrelentingly and without judgment, allowing us to confront Ree’s everyday reality, and inevitably see the humanity of everyone who endures it. As a statement on rural American life, it’s everything Hillbilly Elegy is too self-inflated to be.

Emily: [blatant plug alert] Can I point to season two of my scripted fiction podcast, Arden, which takes place in rural Montana and is about the uncomfortable intersections of rural identities and queer identities, as well as modern agribusiness? Oh, also there’s murder and flirting! [blatant plug alert]

When it comes to my particular brand of rural America, however, nothing has been quite as good as Chloe Zhao’s The Rider, a scripted narrative feature that nevertheless bears lots of documentary elements in its painstaking portrayal of a South Dakota rodeo champ who risks so much more than his health when he gets on the back of a bronco. It’s also set on a reservation and stars a cast of Indigenous actors.

Alternately, if you want to see an outsider’s portrayal of rural American poverty among predominantly white folks, consider Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, about a group of lower-class kids who climb in a big van and drive around the Great Plains selling magazines to people who probably don’t need more magazines. It’s a long movie at 163 minutes, but I have watched it multiple times and found it deeply moving every time.

Hillbilly Elegy premieres on Netflix on November 24.