“My grandma would say if someone else calls you a hillbilly, you might need to punch them in the nose. But if we call ourselves hillbillies, it’s a sort of a term of endearment, something that we have co-opted.” – J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy
If we are to believe Netflix, America has been fairly intrigued by Ron Howard’s latest directorial effort, Hillbilly Elegy, based on the controversial but popular memoir of the same name by author and venture capitalist J.D. Vance. Netflix declared Hillbilly Elegy its most viewed item Thanksgiving weekend, and the film remains in Netflix’s top ten movies even now at the time of writing this review. How popular the movie will actually stay remains to be seen. But that is not why I am writing today.
J.D. Vance is sort of a hillbilly abroad. He grew up a misplaced hillbilly, as his memoir and Ron Howard’s movie show, in Middletowne, Ohio, but a hillbilly nonetheless, his immediate family being from deep within Appalachia in Breathitt County, Kentucky, and as he grew up, he and his family spent every summer there. I call him “abroad” because he has since traveled far outside his Appalachian and Rust Belt homes to serve in the United States Marine Corps, attend Ohio State and then Yale, work for billionaire Peter Thiel, and, of course, travel the world through his widely read memoir.
Growing up as a hillbilly myself in the Missouri Ozarks, leaving there at 17 to attend university in Florida but never having severed my roots and returning often, I identify strongly with J.D., his family, and the other assorted characters described in Hillbilly Elegy. So perhaps I am too stubbornly biased. The primarily Scotch-Irish working class folks who sometimes refer to themselves as “the hill people” are close to my heart.
I baled hay with them to raise money for college. I played Bluegrass, folk, and gospel music with them on wooden front porches and at “singings” in backwoods chapels. I milked cows, raised chickens, mended fences, plowed fields, and dug ditches on my family’s own little farm. I hunted with them for white-tail deer, wild turkeys, and cottontail rabbits in the hills and the “hollers.” I listened as often as I could to the old folks reminiscing and the young people dreaming.
No, they were and are not perfect people. My parents kept me out of their public schools and home schooled me from Kindergarten to 12th grade because the public schools there are academically poor and the options for private schools meager. I had relatives in prison for shooting each other or for cooking and selling meth. Many of the people I grew up around were “on the draw” and shuffling from day to day, living from one welfare check to the next, many of them using what little money they did scrounge up to buy dope.
Even so, there is good in those people. Maybe modernity hit hillbilly culture hard. It took away their need for close-knit communities and set them against each other. It asked them to give up their independence and self-reliance. It made them restless for things they couldn’t quite obtain if they stayed at home. It gave them new, more dangerous ways to get high, and it told them their way of life was outdated.
In his book, J.D. Vance says there are two kinds of hillbillies:
“I knew even as a child that there were two separate sets of mores and social pressures. My grandparents embodied one type: old-fashioned, quietly faithful, self-reliant, hardworking. My mother and, increasingly, the entire neighborhood embodied another: consumerist, isolated, angry, distrustful.”
However, many people who watch Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy, written for the screen by Vanessa Taylor (Divergent, The Shape of Water), will not have read Vance’s book, and Howard and Taylor give us a different view of hillbilly culture. In Howard’s movie, there are three kinds of hillbillies:
Pathetic ones who offer the greater world nothing (that’s most of them, including J.D.’s mother, Bev, until J.D. “rescues” her), magical ones who can at least spread their witty words of wisdom around (J.D.’s “Mamaw”), and the most respectable ones, the ones who break free of their redneck chains (here, that’s really only J.D.).
See, Ron Howard, who has directed such popular films as Apollo 13 and The Da Vinci Code, is the kind of person J.D.’s grandmother, “Mamaw,” warned J.D. about. Ron is that “someone else” calling his characters hillbillies. And, you know, I think they should punch him in the nose, just as Mamaw advised.
Ron Howard is a Hollywood child. He grew up a child star in a Hollywood family, his mother an actress, his father a writer, director, and actor. His only experience with hillbillies is playing one as Opie on The Andy Griffith Show, set in the fictional town of Mayberry, North Carolina. Howard has sympathy for these po’ folks, but he doesn’t have enough empathy. He seems only to view us as curiosities. Well, The Andy Griffith Show, while silly and simple itself at times, has more insightful things to say about America’s white peasants than Hillbilly Elegy does, as a film, that’s for sure. Trust me, these people don’t need Ron’s sympathy, don’t desire his pity.
Howard does next to nothing to show us the good elements of hillbilly culture, even though he has J.D. the narrator tell us the hillbilly code was formative to him. Why? We will never know if we leave it up to Ron. Why would someone want to identify themselves as a hillbilly? Why should they be proud? Howard lets us see glimpses of this good in pre-crawl end-titles and home-video clips as his credits roll, and you might be able to read it between the lines of his movie, but he doesn’t tell—or, better yet, show—us.
He removes all the social, political, and cultural meat, what little there was, from J.D.’s book, because he does not respect these characters or their stories enough. We see the Vance family, in Howard’s film, as drug-fueled rage-a-holics stumbling from one bad life decision to the next. He invites us to gape at the Vance family’s dysfunction and gawk at Vance’s mother as her addictions blow up in her face.
Scenes play out like episodes of escalation, and early on, one can easily recognize that each episode begins as a normal, usually familial, interaction and then quickly degrades into histrionics. A few scenes of this and that formula gets old, especially when the scenarios barely contribute to the story arcs, which the movie hardly has anyway. The story is just “here’s some bad, here’s some squalor, but, oh, good! someone finally got out, and made others feel a little happier too!” Yay?
Never mind that J.D.’s grandparents fled Appalachia to give their children a better life in the Rust Belt. Never mind that J.D.’s “Mamaw” spent her whole life holding her family together the best she could, protecting them, even if that did mean doing things like setting her drunk husband on fire to protect her little kids from him. Never mind that J.D.’s mother, Beverly, put herself through nursing school as a single mother of two, and worked successfully as a nurse before succumbing to the opioid epidemic that began its long-lived rage in the ‘90s. Never mind that J.D.’s sister, Lindsay, stayed behind in Middletowne as J.D. went off to the Marine Corps and then Yale, stayed behind with her husband, Kevin, to raise a wonderful family of her own and to watch after Beverly until Bev finally found the courage to rehabilitate.
Ron Howard would have us believe that J.D. Vance brought happiness to his family by casting them off—prepared, of course, with a few of the magical words of wisdom his Mamaw taught him—and then coming back to rescue them. Sure, J.D. is the most successful person in his family, and he is lucky. Not many of his people, of my people, can attain the sort of success he has won. He should be proud, and his family should be proud. You would have to be heartless to watch his success in this movie and not feel a little something optimistic at least. But success can be defined in many ways, and J.D. is not the only happy person in his family, or the only person deserving respect.
It’s a shame. On a technical filmmaking level, Hillbilly Elegy is fine, as most Ron Howard movies are. The cinematography by Maryse Alberti, who has done great work before in movies like The Wrestler and Creed, is pretty good. The production design, art direction, set direction, costuming, etc. is effective, showing us poor and lower middle class life in these places without necessarily condemning it. The acting is good too, especially from Glenn Close as Mamaw and Amy Adams, one of my favorite living actresses, as Beverly.
There are better places to learn about hillbillies through art and entertainment. Try the films of Debra Granik, specifically Winter’s Bone and Leave No Trace, which have the social realism and empathy Howard lacks. Try the comedy flick Logan Lucky from Steven Soderbergh, who is at least a little closer to these kinds of people and definitely shows more respect for them, even in such a comedy. Try some of the pop art that hillbilly people like, such as the music of Bill Monroe and Hank Williams, the novel Shepherd of the Hills, Jared Hess’s comedy Masterminds, or the Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou? Read the essays of writers like Kevin D. Williamson, especially his “Big White Ghetto.” These will get you closer to the truth.
How do other hill people feel about the Hillbilly Elegy movie? How does the Vance family feel? I can’t say. I can only give you my opinions. Take them for what they are worth.