What Critics Miss about Hillbilly Elegy and Culture Clash
A Review (and Review Revue)
The film Hillbilly Elegy follows the story of Yale Law student J.D. Vance, who is called away from his shiny, high-society trajectory back to his Appalachian home to deal with an acute family medical crisis. As he visits, we learn via flashback about Vance’s family’s troubled past, and just what sort of odds Vance overcame to make it to Yale. The film, directed by Ron Howard, is based on a memoir of the same name by, you guessed it, J.D. Vance.
Thematically, Hillbilly Elegy is a combination of Good Will Hunting and The Florida Project. Though all three films are fictional, Hillbilly Elegy has the benefit of being inspired by true events and real people. Moreover, the film is an intense window into three broader issues: intergenerational trauma, the opioid crisis, and an Appalachian-roots meets Yale-law-school culture clash.
Taking these three themes in order, the most notable aspect of the film is that its fierce portrayal of intra-familial trauma makes for an incredibly moving and emotionally rocking watch. For this, the cast and crew should be given a great deal of credit. Amy Adams, who plays Vance’s mother Beverly, offers up a particularly stellar performance, capturing a personality ranging from drug fiend to loving mother with the kind of rage issues that can stem from being raised by at least one alcoholic parent.
In addition, the film does a great job of showing — not telling — the awful effects of the opioid crisis and how this crisis compounded the effects of the changing economy. For instance, the residents of Middletown, Ohio know more about rehab centers than anyone should, because they all know people who have gone to them. The film’s writer, Vanessa Taylor, bets that the Sackler family and Perdue Pharma’s role in the opioid crisis is common knowledge, and one would be hard-pressed to think that this bet failed. (Speaking of which, not only should whatever fine the Sacklers et al. are being made to pay be multiplied by an order of magnitude or more, they should also be made to watch this film several times. Not so many times so that they get inured to it, mind you, but enough so they have to viscerally confront what they have helped wrought.)
Given the film’s premise, some fish-out-of-water moments are inevitable, particularly as J.D. (played by Gabriel Basso) navigates a world which he rightfully expects will sneer at his background. However, the surface level cultural clash is not cartoonishly overemphasized as it frequently is in other films. If anything, the deeper and more important clash on vivid display is that of the tension between the foundational culture of human needs and the culture of lawyerly social expectations. For instance, after receiving the news about the aforementioned family medical crisis, J.D. must attend a fancy cocktail dinner. But because he is in a state of shock, and the culture of the even is one in which deeper feelings aren’t allowed (or would be deemed “inappropriate”), he stumbles over proper etiquette. Or for another example, J.D. feels that he cannot ask to reschedule an incredibly important meeting, even though he has one of the most compelling reasons in the world. Surely, we viewers think, the person he is meeting with might have an ounce of sympathy and work to figure out how best to reschedule. But alas, one’s humanity is often subsumed in corporate America, even more so in the legal profession.
I felt that there was very little to complain about the film itself. Though the experience was intense enough that I don’t think I will watch it again any time soon, I can see myself watching it again at some point in the future.
But. Similar to how the New York Times can generally be counted on for a perennial article about how a judgy east coaster finds themselves miraculously enjoying a yoga class they previously thought was beneath them — The Grey Lady should really establish an office on the West Coast to prevent this sort of embarrassing thing from happening as often as it does — many reviewers missed the point, and instead seem to have reacted to broader concerns and expectations which aren’t, strictly speaking, contained within the film. In fact, I felt confused when reading the reviews after watching it, because it seemed like the critics and I watched two separate movies.
For example, The Atlantic ’s review is bombastically entitled “Hillbilly Elegy Is One of the Worst Movies of the Year.” In this review, critic David Sims takes issue with what he perceives to be the “cultural clash” and writes: “The problem is that some audiences will look at such sequences and conclude that this film is offering insights into certain spheres of society.” While worth noting, a) this doesn’t seem to be an issue with the film itself, and b) when viewed through a humanistic lens, the film offers more insight into unstated aspects of elite Law School culture than it does into J.D.’s culture of origin. The reason for this is that though the film provides insight into J.D.’s family, it’s pretty clear that the family is unique. The film does not make the Vances out to be a typical family living in Ohio, nor are they shown as being representative of Appalachia.
The film faired better at The New York Times, though once again, film critic A.O. Scott’s opinion seems to have been colored by reading the source material. (The original book, which I haven’t read, is both a memoir and anecdotal anthropological theory which about poor white people in Appalachia.) Scott writes: “The Vances are presented as a representative family, but what exactly do they represent? A class? A culture? A place? A history? The louder they yell, the less you understand — about them or the world they inhabit.” But let’s ask: who is “ presenting” the Vances as “representative? Is it the film, or the critic’s mind? Because the movie is not titled A REPRESENTATIVE STORY ABOUT A REPRESENTATIVE FAMILY YOU DON’T KNOW EXPLAINING THE PLIGHT OF MANY MORE TRAGIC PEOPLE, nor does its content present itself as such.
Forbes’ critic, Scott Mendelson, didn’t like the film either. (His review also somehow got the gender of Glenn Close’s fully-formed character, J.D.’s firm Grandmother Mamaw, wrong.) Mendelson writes: “Not unlike ‘The Pursuit of Happyness’, ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ presents a seemingly unique story of a man from humble beginning [sic](or dealing with grim odds) moving himself up the economic ladder. Yet both films try to argue that hard work and determination are the only determining factors without wondering why, [and] if that’s the case, such a story would be unique enough to justify an awards-season movie.”
In fact, hard work being the sole determinant of success is not what the film “tries to argue.” The film instead presents a tenable account of how grim, abusive, and traumatic backgrounds can be overcome, especially if one figure who is keyed in to what is happening, steps in and helps out. The psychotherapist Alice Miller, across several books, sees this pattern so clearly and regularly in her clients that she named such a figure “a helping witness.” In this respect, the two-generation escape-from-trauma seems completely plausible.
(What’s more, though we don’t really ever see J.D. Vance “working hard” as an adult, is anyone going to seriously argue that loads of people just float on in to Yale Law these days? If anything, that hard work isn’t the only ingredient for success doesn’t invalidate it as a necessary ingredient.)
Mendleson continues: “It goes without saying that the film doesn’t touch on trickle-down economics and the outsourcing/automation of American labor, the Reagan-era gutting of public education and social programs or the over-prescription of Oxycontin.”
Actually, the film does touch on the changing landscape of American Labor (we see through flashbacks that the town and local mill used to be vibrant), Regan’s gutting of the public mental health system (which would almost certainly be addressing opioid addiction were it intact today), as well as the over-prescription of Oxycontin (in a scene set in the local hospital.)
What’s funny is that multiple critics seem to simultaneously think the characters in the film are cartoonishly over-the-top and that the story bludgeons home its point, and yet also want to see a chevron newsflash scroll on the bottom with little textual reminders like “this aspect of American life is fucked up because Regan gutted public mental hospitals” and “this aspect of American life is fucked up because of the deleterious war on drugs” and “What is currently being displayed are the pernicious effects of greedy executives” and “Hell, just give money to Bernie Sanders if you feel bad at this point.” The issues are there, but they are shown and not told, which makes this fictional film a piece of art and not an exegesis of U.S. domestic policy.
The review that treated Hillbilly Elegy the fairest, in my opinion, can be found at rogerebert.com, which acknowledges that the book has caused a lot of baggage to be projected at the film.
In doing background research for this review and meta-review, the only thing that made sense of critical opinion was this Jacobin review of the original book. The book apparently argues for hard work and grit while apparently ignoring factors more structural, presents the Vances’ plight as illustrative of other families, and is the thing making generalizations about “hillbilly culture.” While the Jacobin review analyzes book and offers up a critique, it is a far cry from an evisceration as it is accused of being in The Atlantic.
Regardless, though, the book is not the film, and the film is not the book. The film deserves to be given the chance to stand on its own.