‘Hillbilly Elegy’ Deserved a Better Movie – Brett McCracken

When it released in 2016, J. D. Vance’s bestselling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, was quickly heralded as a must-read for anyone struggling to understand the appeal of Trumpism among working-class whites. Though the book isn’t focused on politics, its timing during the 2016 election unavoidably framed it as a timely resource of political anthropology. Rod Dreher’s viral interview with Vance helped cement the book’s status as a key translator of Trumpism to any skeptical “elites” willing to give it a read. 

The book’s popularity, and apparent importance for helping understand 2010s America, made a film adaptation inevitable. Four years later, the film—directed by Ron Howard and starring Amy Adams and Glenn Close—is here, and it’s a pretty big disappointment. Certainly Vance’s book has its flaws, but it deserved a more complicated and provocative film than this one.

Missed Opportunities

Like any adaptation, Howard’s film—playing now in theaters and releasing on Netflix November 24—had to narrow the scope of Vance’s memoir. No two-hour movie could sufficiently capture the book’s political nuances and cultural complexities. That said, the film’s focus—solely on the interpersonal drama of Vance (played at various ages by Owen Asztalos and Gabriel Basso) and his family, particularly his opioid-addict mother (Amy Adams) and bigger-than-life Mamaw (Glenn Close)—reduces Hillbilly Elegy to essentially a higher-brow Lifetime movie-of-the-week.

To be sure, the book does focus on themes of family drama and brokenness, and the film rightly picks up on the challenges of fatherlessness and patterns of intergenerational sin. By tracking Vance’s life at various stages from youth to adulthood, the film explores the tension between honoring imperfect family while seeking to escape cycles of familial dysfunction. “Where we come from is who we are,” Vance says near the end of the film. “But we choose, every day, who we become.”

However moving it is to watch Vance toggle between honoring his past (“My family made me”) and seeking to redeem it through achieving education and career success (“My future is our shared legacy”), the dynamics of this drama feel familiar and rather basic. The film doesn’t really touch some of the larger conversations raised by Vance’s book: the politics of Appalachian whites, skepticism about institutions and elites, white victimhood, and the role (or lack thereof) of faith as a formative influence.

This last omission is perhaps the most disappointing. Crucial insights in Vance’s memoir concern the “Jesus and country” contours of nominal Christianity that often pervade the Bible Belt. It’s a fusion of faith and patriotism that becomes more of a cultural code than a communal, catechizing force. As Vance notes in the book (read TGC’s review), it’s a Christianity composed of people who are “deeply religious but without any attachment to a real church community.” The way a faith like this functions in the formation of someone like Vance (who last year converted to Catholicism)—let alone a whole swatch of voters claiming to be “evangelicals”—is a fascinating part of the story that the film doesn’t really engage. 

Playing It Safe for Oscar Bait

Howard’s adaptation of Hillbilly Elegy largely avoids wading into the book’s complex political, religious, and cultural insights, choosing instead to leverage a great title and memorable characters for a simpler, tried-and-true formula of domestic melodrama and a “rags to riches” Cinderella story. The result is mostly an actor’s showcase that barely conceals its Oscar ambitions. Whenever a prestige Hollywood actor is transformed physically to the “barely recognizable!” level (as is particularly true of Close’s transformation into Mamaw), and inhabits the shoes of an “exotic” person from a red state, awards nominations are sure to follow. But is this the sort of film Hillbilly needed to be?

Whenever a prestige Hollywood actor is transformed physically to the ‘barely recognizable!’ level, and inhabits the shoes of an ‘exotic’ person from a red state, awards nominations are sure to follow. But is this the sort of film Hillbilly needed to be?

Certainly Amy Adams and Glenn Close are excellent thespians who can put on a memorable show. Their intentions are empathy and not antipathy, and they bring occasional moments of insight to their characters here. But watching them in Hillbilly sometimes feels like watching a Brooklyn public radio host trying to cover NASCAR or a San Francisco podcaster attempting to understand why most Latinos dislike the term Latinx. It feels forced, disconnected, and distracting more than authentic. Combined with the film’s avoidance of digging into the political grievances of its characters (as if there’s nothing interesting there to probe), Hillbilly feels unintentionally condescending and uninterested in the very culture it seeks to humanize. 

Perhaps it would have been better as a documentary, or as a Chloé Zhao-type documentary-drama hybrid with non-trained actors from the region. I don’t know. But Howard’s Hillbilly fails to fully dignify the subject matter of the book. Its surface-level narrative adds fuel to the suspicions of many in flyover country—that “coastal elites” and mainstream media have little interest in truly understanding the complex whys behind the 71 million people who voted for Donald Trump last week. Why do they view the media with such suspicion? Why don’t they listen to “experts” who tell them to wear face masks? Why are they still so mad about being called “deplorables”?

When someone like Jimmy Kimmel says he finds it “unimaginable” that so many Americans voted for Trump, and when high-profile Democrats are already making lists of Trump-supporting people who need to be canceled or punished, the divide between blue and red America only deepens, and mutual suspicion only intensifies. Had it spent less time on makeup to transform its actors into Vance lookalikes, and more time seeking to capture the bigger-picture complexities of the culture its characters inhabit, a film like Hillbilly could have blazed a new trail for Hollywood in bridging the cultural divide. 

Alas, it feels less like a bridge than a safely distanced look from afar—through expensive and bespoke binoculars—across the chasm at a complicated culture that feels too maddening or threatening to approach up close. 

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