Everything About Netflix’s Hillbilly Elegy Movie Is Awful (Review)Breaking News
tags: film, Appalachia, Hillbilly Elegy, television, J.D. Vance
[J.D. Vance's] book is a memoir-slash-sociocultural critique that was heralded upon its release as “a civilized reference guide for an uncivilized election,” and praised by some publications as a skeleton key to Trumpism. It was also sharply criticized by many who saw it as advancing rhetoric and old myths about the poor, and eliding the racist roots of antipathy toward Barack Obama. The book was published in June 2016, and mostly drew attention from conservative outlets until it started to develop a reputation as crucial to understanding the white working class, many of whom became Trump voters.
But whatever your opinion of the book, the movie is a different animal, and a startlingly terrible one. This fancy dinner scene shows exactly why. In the book, Vance describes his life at Yale as bewildering, since he was among the small number of students from poor backgrounds and constantly felt like he was playing catch-up, learning that Cracker Barrel is not actually fine dining and figuring out which fork to use. But he has mostly kind things to say about his fellow students and faculty:
Yale made me feel, for the first time in my life, that others viewed my life with intrigue. Professors and classmates seemed genuinely interested in what seemed to me a superficially boring story: I went to a mediocre public high school, my parents didn’t go to college, and I grew up in Ohio.
In the movie, though, Vance’s story plays out quite differently. After the emergency call to his girlfriend, J.D. sits at the dinner table with fellow students and attorneys from high-powered law firms. He is nervous. While making conversation, he says that he is from Ohio and that his grandfather moved there from Kentucky’s hill country to work in a steel mill.
A quiet falls over the table. Everyone glances at each other knowingly. Nobody says anything. They change the subject, while J.D. sits crestfallen and mortified.
I yelled at the screen when I saw that. (Yelling happened multiple times throughout the movie.) Reading Hillbilly Elegy, I feel some kinship with Vance. My people are not from Appalachia, but they’re working-class Northerners, by way of immigrants, potato farmers in Maine, and shoot-your-dinner-from-the-porch North Carolina rednecks. I too am the first in my nuclear family to go to college (on a massive scholarship), and to earn two master’s degrees I’ll be paying for until I retire. Growing up, Cracker Barrel was my favorite special-occasion restaurant.
But my alma mater is an elite institution. Most of my friends were well-off, though a lot of them didn’t realize that the things they took for granted — parents who could send money to them, cable TV, Pop-Tarts for breakfast — were far beyond my imagining. Like J.D., I often felt out of place.
And yet that’s exactly why this scene rang so false. It seems impossible that everyone at that table would take J.D.’s biographical note as embarrassing; instead, as Vance himself points out in his book, his background makes him intriguing, someone different from the usual bunch. The movie can’t seem to imagine that, however. Its writing feels vague and hazy, unacquainted with the world it’s portraying, a collection of clichés stuffed into a two-hour slog.
I am surprised it’s as bad as it is. Written for the screen by Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water, Hope Springs) and directed by Ron Howard, it is distractingly Hollywoodified, a rich person’s idea of what it is like to be a poor person, a tone-deaf attempt to assuage a very particular kind of liberal guilt by reifying the very thing that caused the guilt in the first place. And, perhaps worst of all, it’s a very dull movie.
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