By now, so many critics have gleefully panned the film adaptation of Hillbilly Elegy, it seems they’ve covered everything — its phoniness and inaccuracy in representing Appalachian life, its callous conservative politics advocating personal responsibility to pull oneself out of systemic, multigenerational poverty, its maddeningly shapeless flashback-clotted narrative, and its relentlessly boring affect.
The Atlantic saves you time by titling David Sims’s review “Hillbilly Elegy Is One of the Worst Movies of the Year,” so you don’t even have to read further. But you can, if you want the backstory on the best-selling book’s initial rapturous reception and the subsequent backlash:
When it first arrived on bookshelves, Vance’s story was celebrated as a glimpse into an oft-ignored pocket of America: the white working class of Appalachia and the Rust Belt who swung to Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Hailed as an “anger translator” and cited by Oprah Winfrey and Hillary Clinton, Vance wrote about growing up poor, living with a heroin-addicted mother, and clawing his way into Yale Law School. The book arrived at a seemingly serendipitous moment, offering a bleak but candid view of communities gutted by drug abuse and poverty.
Hillbilly Elegy the memoir has since been dissected, challenged, and eviscerated. It largely focuses on the virtues of hard work and perseverance, launching vague broadsides against the American welfare state; the author often appears uninterested in interrogating deeper systemic issues.
And no wonder! Since the book got published, J. D. Vance’s politics have become even more manifest. He’s now a conservative Republican commentator making regular appearances on CNN and the Tucker Carlson show, and a venture capitalist with billionaire clients like Peter Thiel and Marc Andreessen.
The release of the film has obviously added fuel to the backlash. Director Ron Howard, stung by the critics’ ridicule, blames them for “looking at political thematics that they may or may not agree with, that honestly aren’t really reflected or aren’t front-and-center in this story.”
However, Howard would probably have done better to delve into the spikier “political thematics” of the narrative, because the most noteworthy effect of the movie adaptation of Hillbilly Elegy is its bland familiarity — and therefore its forgettability. A day or so after watching it, you’ll have to struggle to recall more than a vague impression of grotesquely wigged Glenn Close smoking and cussing in a size XXL T-shirt. As for the lead character, narrator, memoir-author, J. D. Vance, who beats the odds and a hopelessly dysfunctional “hillbilly” family to go to Yale Law School, he’s played so blandly and generically by Gabriel Basso, you’ll have forgotten him in an hour, which is a mercy.
The irony of the roaring success of Vance’s best-selling memoir is that it reads like an outsider’s judgy account of Appalachian poverty, but it’s been sold on the claims that it’s an insider’s account. You can make the simple case that it’s both — Vance is the family member who’s made it and can look back smugly on how his summer visits to his poor but proud extended family in Kentucky created the rich soil out of which his own amazing strength and brilliance grew.
But it’s worth noting that, much as critics revile the film version with an abysmal Rotten Tomatoes rating of 25 percent, audiences rate it much higher, at 85 percent.
What’s the appeal? Simple. People caught in the gears of capitalism love these miraculous escape stories. Even done badly, they can do well with audiences trained to crave this kind of narrative. All the clichés trotted out in Hillbilly Elegy have been trotted out before in a thousand iterations, in fiction and supposed nonfiction accounts. For example, the scene in which poor boy J. D., with a chance to make good in high society, can’t figure out which fork to use at the fancy dinner — how many times has that fork dilemma been used in movies about class strivers? Enough so that everyone who watches a lot of movies knows which fork to use.
And then, after his classy Indian girlfriend, Usha (Freida Pinto), coaches him on forks, J. D. has his big opportunity to cement his status in the upper class further imperiled by a crisis in his ever-needy, always intrusive family. Should he stay and secure his future, or endanger it by going to help them? What shall he do?
Well, he could ask Pip in Great Expectations.
Back in the mid-nineteenth century, Charles Dickens made a fortune with this kind of popular narrative in the form of serialized novels such as Great Expectations, David Copperfield, and Little Dorrit. Dickens had lived a version of the narrative himself. He never wrote a tell-all memoir, because he was genuinely ashamed of the time his family spent in debtor’s prison, and the part of his own miserable childhood as a barely housed street urchin working at a shoe polish factory. Even his wife and children didn’t know about those experiences till very late in his life. But he mined them in novels about the vastly unequal English society that allows for an occasional radical change in fortune, though it can’t entirely obliterate the poverty and degradation that went before, leading to many agonizing social encounters of the closely related rich and poor.
For comparisons closer to our time, how about The Glass Castle (2005), another best-selling memoir by a child of poverty — so successful that it created a cottage industry of escape-from-poor-dysfunctional-family memoirs.
Guess what the hook for this one was, as well as the author’s inspiration for writing the book? Jeannette Walls, a successful gossip columnist for New York magazine who also had a gossip spot on msnbc.com, was in a cab on her way to cover a hip downtown party when she saw her own homeless mother going through a dumpster, hunting for food. That’s the triumphant irony we like to see — the one who succeeded in life by sheer grit, hard work, and determination, but who can never completely leave behind the shocking familial wreckage that will entertain us for the rest of the memoir.
As a Vanity Fair reporter gushed when summing up Walls’s life, “It was Sex and the City meets The Grapes of Wrath.”
We who suffer under conditions of cruel socioeconomic inequity tend to love the poignant thrill of aligning our point of view with that shocked gaze through the cab window on the way to the party. We can no more give up those thrills than we can stop buying lottery tickets. It’s a marvelous fantasy not only for straightforward wish fulfillment but also because it allows for imagining the shadow side of such success — the guilt at leaving loved ones behind who are incapable of rising with us provides melodramatic sorrow in the form of sharp pangs that accentuate the pleasure. There but for the grace of God goes this highly successful winner, born of losers! And yet — what if other winners should find out about our lowly origins? Walls hid her immiserated past from friends and coworkers for many years.
The Glass Castle is even better than Hillbilly Elegy for mainstream ideological purposes, actually, because the parents are homeless by choice. Jeannette Walls claimed to have tried time and again to get them housed, but they preferred an unconstrained life on the streets, however brutal the conditions. Both highly gifted and creative, her parents walked away from promising careers, good jobs, decent houses, all the trimmings, in an increasingly desperate flight off the grid that mired their kids in poverty, neglect, and abuse, ending up living in abject squalor in their father’s hometown in West Virginia. But in the end, all four kids have pulled themselves out of poverty, including the New York magazine writer and the brother who becomes a cop.
At the end of the book, their father dies, and they gather not just to mourn but to celebrate themselves as model Americans who did what Americans are supposed to do — make it, entirely on their own, against tremendous odds, so they can tell their Horatio Alger story of “luck and pluck” that justly earned them a meteoric rise in class status, just like their forebears did 150 years ago. And just like J. D. Vance does in Hillbilly Elegy.