IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Netflix's 'Hillbilly Elegy' turns my community's human anguish into Oscar bait

Director Ron Howard's adaptation is a depressing failure — but don't blame Glenn Close or Amy Adams.
Image: Hillbilly Elegy, Glenn Close, Amy Adams
Glenn Close ("Mamaw"), and Amy Adams ("Bev") in Netflix's "Hillbilly Elegy."Lacey Terrell / Netflix

When J.D. Vance published his memoir, "Hillbilly Elegy," in June 2016, no one could have foreseen how Donald Trump's imminent electoral victory would propel him into the role of America's de facto "poverty whisperer." Now, it seems, Netflix has all but guaranteed that Vance will take his leave from the role much like the president himself — amid a chorus of repudiation.

Tasked with bringing the wildly popular New York Times bestseller to life, director Ron Howard has amassed nearly every resource the film industry has to offer.

Tasked with bringing the wildly popular New York Times bestseller to life, director Ron Howard has amassed nearly every resource the film industry has to offer: two of Hollywood's most beloved actresses, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter, the most pervasive media distributor on the planet and an audience held captive by the coronavirus and thirsting for fresh entertainment. Yet, in spite of all of this, the film has been greeted with relentless criticism for its every technical and creative choice. Where these criticisms fail, however, is in not giving credit where credit is due for Howard's steadfast loyalty to the source material's utter contempt for the working poor. While it may never be regarded as a cinematic marvel, "Hillbilly Elegy" stays true to the supposedly groundbreaking revelation that made Vance a bestselling author: that poor people should just try to be less poor.

Want more articles like this? Follow THINK on Instagram to get updates on the week's most important cultural analysis

The Netflix movie stars Amy Adams as Bev, the drug- and marriage-addicted mother of the author (Gabriel Basso and Owen Asztalos as adult and young J.D., respectively), and it recounts Vance's evolution from working-class underachiever to Yale Law student with a bone to pick with his past. Prosthetic-laden Glenn Close rounds out the cast as Mamaw, matriarch to the family of self-described "hill people."

To be sure, the screenplay, penned by "The Shape of Water's" Vanessa Taylor, diverges from the book in key narrative choices — particularly focusing on the female characters far more than the author himself. Bev's addiction is at the forefront of the film, serving as the object of Vance's ire far more than the "welfare queens" the book homed in on. But while it is perhaps watered down to the point of near-palatability, Vance's thesis that American poverty is the direct consequence of individual moral decay, laziness and retreat from organized religion is still there, just slightly off screen.

Naturally, the finished product raises the question: How did this movie even get made? To that point, it simply is not possible to overstate the abruptness with which the 2016 election shifted the nation's focus toward the political power wielded by the rural working class, particularly those in the American oddity of Appalachia. Encompassing 25 million Americans and spanning a dozen states, much of the region remains among the most insular communities left in modern America.

Often — and not always inaccurately — regarded as a cultural and economic anachronism, Appalachia exists as a kind of American purgatory, where no one wants to go and yet no one seems capable of leaving. As a native West Virginian, I have encountered more than my fair share of puzzled looks and condescension when revealing my heritage to those from anywhere farther away than southern Ohio. Questions about kissing cousins, outhouses and "Mountain Dew mouth" frequently follow, straddling the fence between joke and genuine curiosity.

Increasingly, I have people like J.D. Vance to thank for that.

"Hillbilly Elegy" and its convenient timing propelled the author to the top of the talking-head circuit. And for good reason. This often-overlooked community had just thrown the nation into four years of Trump-branded chaos. Vance sold himself as a man who could communicate what was happening in these communities, because he was of them. And Americans bought it. But they did so against a roar of Appalachian voices warning that he did not speak for them. I take issue with this film because I was among these voices.

J.D. Vance and I share more than I would care to admit. I am the son of a single mother, and my early years were spent in a trailer in southern West Virginia.

J.D. Vance and I share more than I would care to admit. I am the son of a single mother, and my early years were spent in a trailer in southern West Virginia. I have been unfortunate enough to witness firsthand the trauma Howard's film sought to depict: the emotional havoc wreaked by cycles of abuse, a local economy unable to keep pace with the modern world, the monthly calculation of which "necessities" to prioritize. As it did Vance, the force of a few strong women drove me from a working-class family to an "elite" law school. So while some may scoff at the idea of a grown man's not knowing which fork to use or the difference between chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, I can attest to it knowing that I continue to order according to the menu selections I can most confidently pronounce.

These shared experiences make it obvious to me that Netflix's "Hillbilly Elegy" fails to communicate anything of real substance. This makes sense, because the author's intentions were not to bring the working class into the modern world, nor were they to explain to outsiders the pain felt by those seemingly left behind in a global economy. Instead, Vance conjured a story that emphasizes his loose connections to Appalachia through tales of cow thievery and lawlessness and glosses over the fact that, by his own account, he was raised (at least for part of his life) in a home with a six-figure income. He trivializes the hopelessness inherent in a life of 80-hour workweeks to simply guarantee survival as mere laziness wrapped in victimization. In doing so, "Hillbilly Elegy" turned Vance into a household name by peddling his anecdotal accounts of welfare abuse or habitual unemployment to justify the idea that people are to blame for their own suffering.

Today, Howard's adaptation is a failure, but don't blame Glenn Close or Amy Adams. By following Vance's lead, Howard has turned a community's moral failings and human anguish into Oscar bait for those looking to find yet another reason to scoff at the working class. The movie is the obvious result of — perhaps well-intentioned — filmmakers who were so eager to tell the story of rural poverty that they never stopped to consider who was feeding it to them. Instead, we now have two hours of poverty porn that feel like just another way for J.D. Vance to cash in on the pain of a community he claims compassion for.