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11 films to watch if you loved — or hated — Hillbilly Elegy

Rural America on film, from Appalachia to the Ozarks, coal miners to sharecroppers.

Two figures stand in a field beside a leafless tree.
A shot from Hell or High Water (2016).
CBS Films/YouTube
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Let’s not mince words: Netflix’s new Oscar-bait Hillbilly Elegy is not the ode to vanishing rural American life it seems to want to be. In the name of presenting an empathetic view of the Appalachian community where it’s set, Ron Howard’s film, based on the bestselling memoir by lawyer J.D. Vance, dredges up a litany of cringe-y tropes and stereotypes about poverty, drug use, classism, and fading small-town America. Outside of a few pointed shots of bricked-up buildings and storefronts with peeling paint, the film has remarkably little to say about either the hillbilly life of its title or hillbillies themselves and their struggle to survive.

What’s odd is that it’s not like there’s a shortage of films that Howard and his production team could have cribbed. There are so many better films that tackle the subject matter of rural American identity that we felt compelled to round them up for anyone who wants cinematic insight into hillbillies, rednecks, and rural life generally. (And no, Deliverance is not one of them.)

Below we present 11 films, a mix of dramas and documentaries, that are far better elegies for the rural Americans they depict than the one currently getting all the buzz.

Winter’s Bone (2008)

Before Ozark put the idea of “Ozark noir” into our heads, Debra Granik’s 2008 film Winter’s Bone did it first. It’s still the best version of it, too. It’s a bleak, beautiful, terrifying film that drew a Best Picture Oscar nod and launched its star Jennifer Lawrence’s entire 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 herself. And she has to manage 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. Co-star John Hawkes also got an Oscar nomination for playing her decrepit but well-meaning uncle, the only adult who has Ree’s back, to whatever degree he can. Filmed in the poverty-ridden Ozark community where it’s set, the landscape we see in Winter’s Bone is squalid but refreshingly authentic. Granik’s camera frames it unrelentingly and without judgment, allowing us to confront Ree’s everyday reality, and inevitably to see the humanity of everyone who endures it. As a statement on rural American life, it’s unique, unforgettable, and deeply empathetic.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, Hulu, YouTube

Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018)

RaMell Ross’s tremendous, Oscar-nominated film Hale County might best be thought of as a tone poem rather than a traditional documentary. Through assembled footage of a rural Alabama county and stunning cinematography, Ross provides a close read of everyday Black life powerful enough to rival anything since Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. The result: a film that transforms the mundanity of normal American life into a beautiful, Tarkovsky-esque epic.

It’s incredibly rare to find any film about Black communities in rural America that’s not using racism as the central conflict. (Consider: Mississippi Burning, Beloved, The Color Purple, and a film chosen for this list, Mudbound.) The weight of racial injustice does loom large over Hale County, but its primary work is to poeticize its subjects rather than frame them as victims. Through Ross’s delicate, soft lens, it’s kept at bay, at least for a while — much like the oncoming thunderstorm that serves as the film’s evening backdrop.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, YouTube

The Last Picture Show (1971)

Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 film about a dying southwestern town is a beautiful, devastating masterpiece — a film ostensibly about slow rural decay and the boredom of small-town life that seethes with tension and repressed emotion. Set in a fading Texas hamlet just before the Korean War, the film follows a group of high schoolers — including real-life siblings Timothy and Sam Bottoms — as they teeter between adolescence and adulthood, each getting a taste of sex, love, and disappointment as the war looms over them all.

The Last Picture Show is probably most famous for Bogdanovich’s decision to film in black and white in order to capture the feeling of a bygone era. But also memorable is its all-star ensemble cast, which includes a young Jeff Bridges, unforgettable turns from Ellen Burstyn and Eileen Brennan, Oscar-winning performances from Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman, and a head-turning screen debut from a teenage Cybill Shepard. Its characters feel like transplants from a Tennessee Williams play that have grown too worn out from dust and despair to perform their typical dramatic Tennessee Williams bullshit. Instead, the film suggests that its epic conflicts have all been forgotten, repressed, and laid aside as its community focuses on just getting by. Never you mind, never you mind.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, YouTube

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

The Coens’ marvelous tribute to the Depression-era South and old-timey folk culture is one movie I can’t be objective about. I grew up as a rural Southerner in a community still steeped in the legacy of the ’30 and ’40s, and no other film has ever captured that sensibility for me as vividly as this retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey. We follow escaped convict George Clooney and his two sidekicks (John Turturro and Tim Blake-Nelson, both sublime) across a daguerreotype-toned landscape of folk symbols. His goal? Make his way back to his wife and kids before she remarries — and, incidentally, before one of the historic floodings overseen by the Tennessee Valley Authority.

This film was completely overshadowed by its tremendously successful, critically acclaimed soundtrack, which was ubiquitous in my bluegrass town (and everywhere else) for about a year after its release. Easily one of the best compilation soundtracks ever assembled, it’s a must-hear, and a cultural journey in its own right — but don’t sleep on the movie itself. What a delight.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, YouTube

First Language: The Race to Save Cherokee (2014)

This short documentary film tells the story of a dwindling community of Native Americans in mountainous North Carolina as they fight to keep knowledge of the Cherokee language alive and thriving. Featuring both Cherokee and English subtitles, the film uses the fight to teach the Cherokee language as a gateway to discussing the many larger challenges and grim realities of indigenous life in the US.

Most stories about Native Americans inevitably focus on reservation life in the West. It’s rare to get such a frank look at the communities who remain in the South, especially Appalachia. With its lovely lingering shots of the Carolina blue hills juxtaposed against glimpses of contemporary modern Cherokee life, First Language is not only a revealing portrait of Smoky Mountain culture, but it’s also a reminder that forced assimilation always comes at a cost — in this case, one still being felt centuries later.

Where to watch: YouTube

Songcatcher (2000)

Yet another historical Appalachian folk tale, Songcatcher is loosely based on the real-life work of folklorists and linguists — not something you hear every day as the basis for a plot. Janet McTeer’s fictional linguistic anthropologist, a proper Edwardian Englishwoman, arrives in the backwoods of North Carolina to study the unique regional folk dialects, only to find herself a stranger in a strange land, far out of her depth.

Though the storyline is sometimes cheesy, Songcatcher benefits from having a singular and compelling subject, as well as from a unique and often thrilling soundtrack. The ensemble cast features performances from actual folk singers, like Iris Dement, whose hypnotic twang must be heard to be believed. Songcatcher is worth watching just to hear Dement’s rich voice encapsulate a nation’s worth of hope and despair.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, YouTube

Harlan County, USA (1976)

The 1976 Oscar winner for Best Documentary, Harlan County, USA, documents the tense strike of unionized Eastern Kentucky miners to win higher wages in the face of institutional corruption, violent intimidation, and even murder.

Documentarian Barbara Kopple became far more than an observant bystander on the production, often using her camera crew’s presence to quell intimidation tactics against the striking miners. Even so, the reality of life in the mining community and anti-union violence as she captures it on film is eye-opening and utterly engrossing. In the middle of a heated union meeting, one woman pulls a gun out of her cleavage and gleefully waves it around. “I ain’t here for a man, I’m here for a contract!” another union woman declares. She’s later voted president of the association. Rock on.

Where to watch: YouTube

October Sky (1999)

Another film based on the true memoir of a small-town Appalachian boy who made good, October Sky adapts NASA engineer Homer Hickam’s life, with wide-eyed Jake Gyllenhaal playing the rocket-obsessed son of a coal miner. Like other biopics in its vein — Coal Miner’s Daughter comes to mind — October Sky runs on optimism in the face of hardship. But it also counters its up-by-your-bootstraps mantra with the reminder that life in the coal mines is often hopeless, with regional poverty leading to a generational cycle that forces many people to follow in their parents’ footsteps and become miners themselves.

In the face of that bleak reality, Hickam’s unrelenting positivity is almost daffy. But Gyllenhaal, for whom this was a breakout role, sells this unlikely success story by lacing his performance with sheer desperation — a grim determination to escape being trapped between a mountain and a hard place.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, Hulu, YouTube

Hell or High Water (2016)

Gritty and infused with desperation, Hell or High Water is a modern heist Western that churns around a broader, relatable economic anxiety. It’s a post-recession No Country For Young Men, fueled by the housing crisis, fading towns, and the internal conflict between a Texan’s DIY wherewithal and an economic system that’s failed to protect him.

It’s kind of astonishing that Scottish filmmaker David McKenzie hopped across the pond to deliver this sensitive, sumptuous look at two brothers whose determination to save the family from destitution drives them to embark on a modern-day bank-robbing spree. Hell or High Water could have easily been cliched and over the top, but its solid cast, deep reliance on setting, and well-worn sense of place save it, muting its melodramatics and turning it instead into a meditation on the thwarted hopes and dreams of the American heartland.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, YouTube

Mudbound (2017)

Mudbound, Dee Rees’s stunning look at the legacy of sharecropping and racial tensions in 1940s Mississippi, garnered Netflix four Oscar nominations, including a groundbreaking nod for cinematographer Rachel Morrison. Though it’s packed with historic detail, its story of neighboring families struggling to make peace and survive off the land could almost take place at any time during the last 200 years: Neither the land nor the turbulent racial tensions that divide Mudbound’s poor farmers are any easier to master today than they were in the post-war-era South.

Mudbound eschews the lush hills of the Ozarks or Appalachia for the flat, fertile, but unforgiving Mississippi Delta. Part of what makes this film so good is how tactile it is: The emphasis on all that mud doubles as an obvious metaphor for the drudgery and impossible cycle of poverty that besieges rural America, but it’s also an equally trenchant metaphor for plain old world-weary exhaustion; this is a film that looks and feels heavy. That Mudbound somehow manages to turn that feeling into something kinetic rather than boring is a testament to Rees’s astonishing direction, its superb ensemble cast, and a fantastic screenplay from Rees and Virgil Williams.

Where to watch: Netflix

Where the Red Fern Grows (1974)

This film about a boy and his two prized coon hounds growing up in the Ozarks will never be on any best-of lists unless they involve movies about dogs. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a more influential film for a certain subset of conservative, rural America.

For a good period of my life growing up, I was subjected to Where The Red Fern Grows multiple times a week: at pre-school, at church, at grade school. Something about its mix of folksy Americana and nostalgia for a bygone vision of wilderness conquest, its overtly Christian themes, and cute dogs made this 1974 film (not to be confused with its 2003 remake or its odd 1992 sequel) a go-to form of indoctrination for countless ’80s and ’90s children across the region.

The fact that it’s also a notoriously sad film may have even made it more bitterly endearing. This is, perhaps, a film that embodied a familiar cycle: one of rural American dreams set alight, then smothered, only to smolder again thanks to a heady cocktail of faith, resilience, and ideology.

Where to watch: YouTube