Review – Hillbilly Elegy


NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Friday, November 13th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. 

Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: A review of a highly anticipated film based on the life-story of a conservative author.

Here’s Megan Basham.

MEGAN BASHAM, FILM CRITIC: Like many people, I had high hopes when Ron Howard decided to direct an adaptation of Hillbilly Elegy

J.D. Vance’s memoir about growing up in Appalachia and the Rust Belt became an immediate bestseller in 2016, not just for his insightful reflection on a much-maligned subculture. But also because he seemed to offer the prosperous (and, frequently, pompous) classes a way of making sense of Donald Trump’s popularity.

CLIP: Who’s gonna take care of this family when I’m gone? I thought your mama was gonna be alright. Be happy. Do good. But she got tore up round here. She just up and quit. She just stopped trying. I know I could have done better. But you, you got to decide. You want to be somebody or not?  

Unfortunately, Howard’s version of Vance’s story offers nothing deeper than a pastiche of white poverty…with a few caricatures of noble country folk thrown in for good measure. 

CLIP: Why do they do that Mamaw? We’re Hill People, honey. We respect our dead. 

So it’s interesting that a movie whose biggest crime is being inoffensively average is earning such a violent reaction from some critics.

The movie’s failure stems mostly from its disinterest in specifics. It shows us what sets J.D. apart from the elites at Yale through clichéd illustrations, like not knowing which fork to use. But it never explores how he’s the same. We don’t see the qualities that afford him entry to the crème-de-la-crème of the academic world despite having no connections and not knowing the difference between Chardonnay and Chablis.

The same goes for his family. We get only magpie bits of each character, and almost all of it feels like a generalization.

CLIP: Is that a fried baloney sandwich? My savior. I figured they don’t have that at a Yale. No, I think this might be outlawed at Yale. 

The movie wallows in scenes we’ve seen a million times before—the junkie scrabbling over dirty bathroom tiles for a fix, the greasy-haired teens bullying the hero—but none of that explains how J.D. ended up in those rarefied rooms. Sure, we know he’s smart and does his homework. But that’s not typically enough to get into the Ivy League. 

Offering some specific answers to that intriguing question would have given us far more insight than yet another scene of his mom smacking her kids around.

As played by Amy Adams, Bev Vance is little more than a stock opioid addict.

CLIP: You’ve always got a reason. It’s always someone else’s fault. Some point you’re gonna have to take responsibility.  Or someone else is gonna have to step in. Who, huh? Who? You? What are you gonna do? 

We get no hint of conflicted feelings she may have about her son’s achievements. Or, for that matter, whether she might have contributed to them. Despite raising them with a revolving door of husbands and boyfriends, Bev actually had two successful children. Her daughter may not have become a bestselling author, but she is a happy suburban mom who’s been married to her husband for 22 years. That’s also a story of overcoming.

Or consider the matriarch of the clan, Mamaw, played by Glenn Close.

CLIP: I know this ain’t right, honey. But she’s your mother. And maybe if we help her this one last time she’ll finally learn her lesson and keep her job. Why can’t we let her clean her own mess up for once?

Sharply drawn in the book, she adheres to a brand of religion that drops F-bombs half a beat after alluding to everyone’s favorite Old Testament verse, “For I know the plans I have for you.” Almost none of that complexity makes it into the film because that would require rendering judgement on the character’s choices and worldview. It would move into the realm of politics and New Deal generational dependence on government.

CLIP: Those are my friends. Not anymore. You can thank me later. Three years from now those idiots will be on food stamps or in jail. Who am I supposed to talk to? Talk to yourself. Works for me.

In the book, Vance, a social conservative, critiques the kind of cultural Christianity that he says is “heavy on emotional rhetoric” but “light on the kind of social support” that could have offered his family meaningful hope. He also took aim at the empty bravado of shiftless men who fail to care for the women and children in their lives. 

Howard seems desperate to avoid broaching these tough subjects.  

This isn’t an elegy for a crumbling, forgotten community. It’s a simplistic, feel-good story of one guy’s triumph.

CLIP: Twice I’ve needed to be rescued. The first time it was Mamaw who saved me. The second it was what she taught me. That where we come from is who we are. But we choose everyday who we become. My family’s not perfect. But they made me who I am. And gave me chances that they never had. My future, whatever it is, is our shared legacy. 

None of that explains the fury being directed at the movie. Some critics claim it’s “right wing propaganda” that “intentionally obscures racism and white supremacy.” Another hopes the movie’s failure will “mark the end of Trump-era myth-making about the white working class.”

Strangely extreme reactions for a mediocre melodrama. Their fear, it seems, is that the film might spark the same interest in addressing the concerns of Trump’s base that Vance’s book did. They needn’t worry. Howard avoids any reason to think about that.

I’m Megan Basham.


(Lacey Terrell/Netflix via AP) This image released by Netflix shows Haley Bennett, from left, Glenn Close and Owen Asztalos in a scene from “Hillbilly Elegy.” 

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One comment on “Review – Hillbilly Elegy

  1. Justin Houston says:

    Good review! What was the background music playing at the end? Thank you for all the good movie reviews on World!

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