Hillbilly Elegy Is A Hollywood Movie. Get over it.
Presumably you’ve heard about film adaptation of J.D. Vance’s bestselling 2016 memoir Hillbilly Elegy, which premiered on Netflix on November 24. Presumably you’ve heard that it’s the worst movie ever made.
At least you’ve heard this if you’re on Twitter. For at least two weeks before the film began streaming, the Twitterverse, propelled by a few early and scathing reviews, was busy signaling its derision for the film. The usual finely-tuned social media critiques were invoked: garbage, trash, yikes.
At that point, few if any of these would-be critics had actually seen the film. Scrolling through many of the tweets, it also appeared that few of them had read Vance’s book. Most of the antipathy appeared to be directed at Vance himself, whose personal story of overcoming massive family dysfunction (and not a little personal dysfunction) via the Marine Corps and then scholarships to Ohio State University and Yale Law School has been interpreted by some leftists as up-by-the-bootstraps conservative rhetoric.
That reaction largely came in the form of backlash to what was initially an exuberant reception to the book. (I myself reviewed it favorably in The New York Times Book Review in October of 2016.) As the emergence of Trumpism forced elites to try to understand Donald Trump’s appeal among poor and working class whites, Vance came to occupy an ambassador-like role, appearing on CNN and elsewhere to explain the poverty cycle in rural America. He even flirted with entering Republican politics (reportedly, Mitch McConnell tried to talk him into running for the U.S. Senate) but instead left a venture capital job in Silicon Valley and returned to his native Ohio, where he set up a nonprofit devoting to fighting opioid addition in that region. Vance is currently a visiting fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
So, we get it, Vance is a conservative. I noticed a few Twitter users blithely calling him a Trump supporter, but that’s not fair. Vance has ties to tech entrepreneur and Trump supporter Peter Thiel (as do many people of many party affiliations and ideological stripes), but there’s no evidence that Vance himself ever supported the president. What Vance appears to be is a run-of-the-mill “small c” conservative, a quality that shouldn’t be noteworthy unless you happen to intersect with mainstream media circles, in which case you become the kind of non grata figure — think people like Bari Weiss, Andrew Sullivan, Megyn Kelly, Lena Dunham, Hillary Clinton (yes, I am grouping these people together) — for whom everything you touch is subject to a level of scrutiny that no one would bother applying to someone less “problematic.”
Not that Vance has much to do with the film adaptation of his book (he’s listed as an executive producer, but it’s not uncommon for studios to give authors that credit as part of their overall deal). Hillbilly Elegy, the movie, is a Ron Howard joint. That is to say it’s a mainstream Hollywood picture to its core. Polished, earnest, and sentimental: that’s Howard’s trademark. This is the guy who directed Cocoon, A Beautiful Mind, Parenthood, Apollo 13 and Solo: A Star Wars Story, to name a few among countless projects spanning a more than fifty year career. Nuance is not exactly Howard’s metier, but he’s anything but a hack. He works with big budgets and attract A-list actors, in this case Glenn Close and Amy Adams.
I watched Hillbilly Elegy last week. It’s not a very good movie. It’s often stilted, mostly one-dimensional and burdened by such an unwieldy structure that I felt almost physical sympathy pains for the screenwriter, who must have torn out new clumps of her hair with each draft and revision. But contrary to what the critics are saying, the film is not a crime against humanity. It is not, as Kevin Fallon of The Daily Beast put it, “a garbage movie.” It is not, as Alissa Wilkinson wrote in Vox, “startlingly terrible” and “strangely gross.” Instead, it’s an average drama featuring some above average performances, namely from Close and Adams, though I’d also give a shoutout to Owen Asztalos, who plays “young J.D.” in a way that manages to wear the character’s heart on his sleeve while retaining his cloak of self-protection.
About fifteen minutes into watching Hillbilly Elegy, I posed a question on Twitter (the fact that I was tweeting while watching tells us a lot). I asked people what they might cite as better examples of similarly-themed movies. Some of the answers I got included Winter’s Bone, Frozen River, The Florida Project, and Harlan County, USA. These are all outstanding films (good taste, Twitter people!) They’re also independent, relatively low budget films that benefited from the singular artistic visions of directors that didn’t have to answer to big Hollywood studios or make compromises to appease big name actors or the financiers required to pay those actors. (Winter’s Bone was a breakout performance by Jennifer Lawrence, who was twenty at the time.) As for Harlan County, USA, which chronicled a 1973 coal miners strike in southeastern Kentucky, it’s a classic of its genre and arguably one of the most famous films about worker’s rights in modern history. Its director and producer, the now-legendary Barbara Koppel, won the 1976 Oscar for Best Documentary.
Much of progressives’ criticism of Hillbilly Elegy had to do with the movie’s failure to wrestle with the story or the characters in terms of their relationship to Trumpism. (And actually, that was a fairly sophisticated take; others just seemed peeved that the movie wasn’t representative of their own experiences either growing up in that region or, in a few cases, attending Yale.) But the film, which is set mostly in the 1990s, is under no obligation to meet either of those demands. Like most Hollywood films, its primary task is to tell a story that will hold an audience’s attention for a few hours. Considering that Rotten Tomatoes currently shows the audience favorability at 81 percent versus a critics score of 27 percent, Hillbilly Elegy appears to have at least fulfilled that minimum requirement. Meanwhile, I can’t help but think that many of the film’s haters would be less inclined to express their disapproval — or to register any opinion at all — if it weren’t based on the life story of someone they’d construed as some kind of ideological foe.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to convince anyone to watch this film. God knows, there’s already too much out there to watch. (As soon as I hit “publish” on this post I’ll be off to watch the last episode of HBO’s The Undoing, though that series leaves plenty to be desired in its own right. ) All I’m asking is that people please stop comparing it to films like Winter’s Bone and Frozen River — and not because neither of those films take place in Appalachia. Making such comparisons is like comparing a network television drama to a premium cable drama. It’s just not fair and, honestly, there’s no point.
Hollywood has coughed up far, far, far worse films than Hillbilly Elegy. (Some of them have even won Academy Awards; I’m looking at you, Crash.) It’s just that Twitter didn’t bother to complain about them so no one noticed. Meanwhile, everyone survived the trauma of those movies’ terribleness. That’s because a mediocre work of art never killed anyone. What ruins us all is when we spend more time reacting to art than taking it in.