Hillbilly Elegy

In 2016 Neo-Fascist con man Donald J. Trump became President of the United States. The American media establishment, aghast at the fact that such an amoral, incompetent man had become commander-in-chief, cast about for an explanation as to why the far right had gained so much traction within American political discourse. The man they thought could explain the phenomenon was J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy.

The book is about Vance’s childhood in Middleton, Ohio. He grew up poor, but managed to escape poverty, attend Yale and become a lawyer. Vance blames hillbilly culture and its supposed deficiencies 
for creating the problems faced by economically underprivileged whites. He also consistently blames his family for not assuming responsibility for their actions. He does not, however, discuss the role that racism played in Trump’s rise to power.

Hillbilly Elegy became insanely popular, as the public grasped for some understanding of what was happening to their democracy, rising to the top of the New York Times’ best seller list, and cementing J.D. Vance’s reputation as an “expert” on white poverty.

Huge bestsellers tend to get adapted for the big screen, so it is no surprise that Netflix did just that. On November 11, 2020, Netflix released a film based on Hillbilly Elegy. It stars Glenn Close and Amy Adams as Vance’s grandmother and mother. This film is also directed by the very talented Ron Howard.  

Howard has a long, impressive history directing and producing such standouts as Willow (1988) and Backdraft (1991), and he gained widespread praise for Apollo 13 (1995), A Beautiful Mind (2001) and Frost/Nixon (2008). He received Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Picture for A Beautiful Mind and was nominated again for the same awards for Frost/Nixon.  

Glenn Close worked mainly on the New York stage until the early 1980s, winning a Tony Award for her role in The Real Thing (1983). She went on to establish herself a Hollywood leading lady with outstanding roles in The Fatal Attraction (1987) and Dangerous Liaisons (1988), both earning her nominations for the Academy Award for Best Actress. She received two additional Best Actress nominations for Albert Nobbs (2011) and The Wife (2017), winning a Golden Globe Award for the latter.

Amy Adams had her first film success in Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can (2002), and this was followed by roles in a variety of films including Enchanted (2007), The Master (2012), American Hustle (2013) and Arrival (2016). She has won two Golden Globes and has been nominated for six Academy Awards.

Looking at the talent involved in this film, we would expect an impressive production. But alas, the film is a disappointment.

The characters, even the one played by Close, come across as overwrought cartoonish caricatures. The movie is in large part ugly, nasty and dark, with what remains being equal parts melodramatic and saccharine, with nothing interesting to say on the subject of intergenerational impoverishment besides insisting that America’s white underclass needs tough love and should pull itself up by its own bootstraps.  

J. D. Vance will probably love this movie, but I would advise you to give it a miss. Skip it and go watch Winter’s Bone again.