Hillbilly Elegy, which premiered on Netflix Tuesday, does not exactly meet the hype. Based on the controversial memoir by J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy presents a dreary and dismal view into the stereotypes of the poor white folks of the heartland. The film falls easily into the sins of the book, without half of what made the original tale interesting.
The film follows J.D Vance, in both the present as an aspiring lawyer and the past as a troubled young boy, as he tries to navigate his tumultuous upbringing. Through Vance’s life and family, the film explores the key issues that plague the American heartland—according to Vance, at least. The Vance family and those around them experience addiction, poverty, a dire lack of healthcare, and teenage pregnancy.
Given the dire circumstances, there’s an undertone of anger here that makes sense in the context of the story. It’s all about the plight of poor white America.
I read Hillbilly Elegy years ago when it first came out. It was published in the midst of the 2016 election and exploded in popularity as Americans, and especially the American elite tried to contend with the election. The book was initially lauded by both sides of the aisle as a way to explain what was going on in the country with the rise of Donald Trump. Many considered Vance’s tale to be a window into a world that explained Trump’s victory.
Vance’s memoir experienced unexpected success and sales. It’s remarkable popularity was followed by a Netflix bidding war, which brought us all here today.
Many considered Vance’s original version as a problematic portrayal of Appalachia. Critics claimed, with good reason, that his story plays into stereotypes of poor white folks. It’s important to remember that Hillbilly Elegy is not just a memoir. It’s framed as an example of an entire culture in crisis. In Vance’s version of Appalachian culture, his peers are simply lazy. He contests that if you just join the military and work hard enough, you can make it to Yale Law too. What Vance leaves out is the incredible amount of luck this takes. It is not always possible to simply work your way out of a bad situation.
The movie shies away from the sociopolitical critique featured in Vance’s memoir, but not necessarily in a way that benefits. While everyone might not agree with Vance’s point of view, it was, at the very least, something worth discussing. In an attempt to avoid ruffling feathers, the film tones down the larger cultural context that was central to the book. It’s still there, if you’re looking, in the simple chain of events that dictated the plot, but it’s much less prominent.
The lack of teeth is central to the disappointment that Hillbilly Elegy provides. It’s full of drama, and yet somehow still incredibly dull. It’s hard to stay engaged with the characters, even with the stellar weight of Amy Adams and Glenn Close. The plot is dreary, a necessity, given the themes of the narrative. However, there is not much to balance it out. There is not much to root for, except for an awkward and decidedly vanilla J.D. Vance and the star of the show—MawMaw. It’s all doom and gloom and sadness, but sadness that doesn’t really reach the viewer. I cried watching Crazy Rich Asians the other day, and this movie did not compel a single tear.
The film fails to leave a lasting impression, despite it’s best efforts to tug at the heartstrings. so incredibly dull and frustrating to watch. It’s one of those movies that seems like it could have been good. The story absolutely has potential. It could have been a way to repair the sins of the book. Instead, it is a constant cliche of what it’s like to be a poor white American, with absolutely no kick to it.