Is It ‘Classist’ to Think ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ Is a Raging Dumpster Fire of a Movie?
The Netflix adaptation of J.D. Vance’s memoir has received horrendous reviews from critics—and a backlash that asks whether those “coastal elites” are in a position to judge.
The thing about Hillbilly Elegy is that it is a garbage movie.
That’s not a flippant dismissal of the new Netflix film, directed by Ron Howard, based on J.D. Vance’s 2016 memoir, and starring Amy Adams and Glenn Close in backwoods drag. It’s to say that, when carefully considered, there is very little, if anything at all, that is redeemable about it; whatever misguided intention there was behind it, the resulting product is disposable.
If you’re clued in to the world of Film Twitter or have perused coverage of the movie, you’ve already been made aware of that response. Since its review embargo broke three weeks ago, critics’ pans flooded the internet like a gushing sewer leak.
The film is told from the perspective of J.D. Vance (Gabriel Basso), a former Marine and Yale law student from Appalachia. When his mother’s (Adams) drug addiction disrupts his life yet again, he is forced to travel back home to fix things, grappling with the tension between his hill country upbringing and Yuppie world he’s breaking into. His journey, of sorts, is to come to terms with how formative the complex relationships with his mother and grandmother (Close) still are in his new life.
The real Vance’s memoir was released in 2016 and this film adaptation is quite pointedly coming out in the weeks following a fraught election. The idea, then, is to ostensibly say something worthwhile about a fractured America, give voice to people in a part of the country who some argue are categorically dismissed, and, through a human story, provide clarity to the ever-foggy question of: “What circumstances led to Donald Trump’s election?”
But what was supposed to be a bridge to understanding between very different factions of people has instead fortified a wall. Critics have ravaged the film as an abject failure of empathy, and the word “classist” has been bandied about from all sides: people from Appalachia dismayed with how the book and film depicts them, and rural Americans who find critics’ intense contempt for the film akin to morally superior cannon balls launched from ivory towers.
It’s a lightning rod in a storm over a class war, saturating the dirt in the perennial red state-blue state battle and providing ample mud for future slinging.
“Hillbilly Elegy isn’t interested in the systems that create poverty and addiction and ignorance; it just wants to pretend that one straight white guy’s ability to rise above his surroundings means that there’s no excuse for everyone else not to have done so as well,” wrote The Wrap’s Alonso Duralde in his review.
“Directed by Ron Howard and denuded of any meaningful politics to speak of, Hillbilly Elegy is an extended Oscar-clip montage in search of a larger purpose, an unwieldy slop bucket of door-smashing, child-slapping, husband-immolating histrionics,” wrote the Los Angeles Times’ Justin Chang. “These characters are trapped... in generational cycles of dysfunction, deprivation and hopelessness. Those patterns are also cultural and structural, though unlike its source material, Hillbilly Elegy seems curiously uninterested in the underlying causes, let alone the possible solutions.”
Similar complaints were made about Vance’s book, though at the time of its release the discourse included much more support. Vance was criticized for “damaging rhetoric,” labeled “the false prophet of Blue America,” and his writing was called “a list of myths about welfare queens repackaged as a primer on the white working class.” Yet it was also a bestseller that was hailed in some circles as offering hard lessons for liberals to stomach and being admirably provocative.
Still, the memoir’s release inspired an anthology of essays titled Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy, a collection in which local writers criticize Vance’s generalizations about the community and misguided—some argue insulting and false—characterizations of the systems of poverty.
The spectrum of opinion has followed Hillbilly Elegy from memoir to film. A search for “Hillbilly Elegy” and “classist” on social media surfaces years of readers attacking Vance’s portrayal of Appalachia as such. Yet on the other side of the argument, reviewers who panned the film have been labeled classist themselves, criticized as “coastal elites” with pretentious apathy toward poor whites.
The day reviews were published, one Twitter user wrote, “As I drove today between a red county in rural PA to the blue college-town county in which I live, I reflected on the Hillbilly Elegy reviews. It’s sorta gross to watch a handful of coastal film critics sitting on their high horses panning a movie about rural America bc they can.”
Said another, “Pans I don’t mind. Not-so-veiled disdain for Trump country (and Trump voters) definitely reeks of elitism, especially when it’s given as the reason why someone can’t have sympathy for these people, their plight, etc. Personal digs at Vance are also pointed.”
Then there’s the displeased Twitter user who googled where each reviewer who criticized the film was from and commented “Ok Los Angeles resident” or “You live in New York” as reason enough to disqualify their opinion of the film.
That this is such a debate is proof itself of why this matters. These last four years have been nothing if not an exasperating exercise in attempting to understand and give voice to the marginalized and overlooked. Media organizations have devoted untold resources to surfacing stories of Trump voters in a pandering attempt—for everyone involved—to elucidate some sort of lesson about the country’s siloed ethos and the press’ coastal bias. It has largely amounted to a suffocating scale of discourse that says nothing useful.
A film like Hillbilly Elegy coming out seemed like an opportunity to rectify that. There was a desire for it to succeed.
Much like the reviews for Vance’s book, there have been raves for the film opposite the high-profile pans. But that essentially every reaction to the movie, good or bad, frames it as glaringly transparent “Oscar bait” speaks to the power of a movie like this.
It’s easy to be seduced by flashy performances from beloved actors rendered unrecognizable, effortfully accenting and speechifying their way through an emotionally manipulative production. Succumb to the ride, and be gratified by the forced catharsis. The volume of the criticism is in direct response to this artifice—an attempt to break through with necessary context and nuance.
It’s why fans of Adams and Close, two actresses with 13 Academy Award nominations between them and no statuettes, are in despair over the thought of either performer finding Oscar glory for this, of all films.
That concern is owed to the dissonance between these impassioned complaints and how a film like this might play to an audience. Look only to Green Book two years ago for evidence of that friction. Even then, criticisms about historical inaccuracies, the gross oversimplification of race and racism, and fears about how its feel-good tone would mollify volatile issues in America seemed to only fuel the support of those who were charmed.
There’s an outrageous line that has already become somewhat of a meme from the film. As Mamaw, Close tells the J.D. Vance character, “Everyone in this world is one of three kinds: a good Terminator, a bad Terminator, and neutral.” It’s already clear that the party cast as the “good” or “bad” Terminator in discussing this film is going to be divisive. But I suspect no one will fill the role of the neutral.