There are many odd and irksome things about the new Hillbilly Elegy movie on Netflix. For my money, the strangest aspect of the production is that it has only a superficial resemblance to J. D. Vance’s 2016 book. It’s as though you were to make a movie of Moby-Dick, knowing only that it has a ship and a white spermaceti whale and a mad captain who stumps around on a peg-leg.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis was political propaganda dressed up as autobiography. Considered creative nonfiction, it’s limp and tangled. Its value lay mainly in its critical reception — or rather, the hype surrounding it — in the summer of 2016.
The film is basically soap opera about family dysfunction among the semi-rural working classes. Some of the many characters in the memoir sort of appear in the film, only they’ve pretty much been conjured up ex nihilo (as Bill Buckley would say). This is because the book didn’t give screenwriter Vanessa Taylor or director Ron Howard much to work with. Vance the memoirist is mostly interested in himself, and that’s perfectly appropriate. But the other people in his vast parade of interchangeable stepfathers, friends, cousins, teachers are mostly ciphers.
Vance the writer is sort of an anti-Dickens: he brings us a hundred characters, but gives them nothing quirky or memorable to say or do. So the film has to invent and improvise, building a storyline that revolves around Vance’s mother, seen here as a promiscuous and drug-addled loony. The real Mom was blessedly absent for much of Vance’s childhood, and in his book, she’s mostly an offstage irritant. The film tries to give her some backstory (high school salutatorian; early pregnancy), but that’s not the same as character development of a sort that would make her interesting or likable. In the film, her main activities are drugs, sex, and throwing tantrums.
This isn’t enough to hold the film together, but it provides the basis of a spindly plot: Vance has to leave Yale Law School for a couple of days to put his mom in rehab. So he drives out to Middletown, Ohio and thinks about his childhood. We spend half the film in repetitive flashbacks to the Olden Days (the late 1990s in this case) so we can see Mom when she was younger, and busy doing — well, drugs, sex, and tantrums. Not a lot of character development, as I say.
The film has one enjoyable scene in which Mom (Amy Adams) pops pills and goes rollerskating through the corridors of the hospital where she works. This is almost entirely the invention of screenwriter and director; the book barely alludes to such an episode, apparently as a figure of speech. For the film, it’s a plot point for Mom to get fired and begin her never-ending cycle of rehab and relapse.
Details of rehab and Mom’s varied pharmacopeia might make for an interesting story if she were more interesting herself, but then we’d have an entirely different film. A black comedy, perhaps, a cross between Drugstore Cowboy and Valley of the Dolls. But authentic details are what this film lacks throughout. I wanted to know what sort of meds make so you so energetic and euphoric that you’re ready to make your nursing rounds in a pair of high-topped day-glow rollerskates. Such pills may exist, but I doubt they’re stocked in hospital pharmacy cabinets. Low-information viewers may suppose she’s popping OxyContin (“hillbilly heroin,” you know). And that may well be what the filmmakers were trying to imply. Vance’s real-life Mom did seem to do a lot of opioids.
But trust me here: opiates don’t make you want to go to the roller rink.
The film has been roundly mocked by critics for the shallowness of its characters and its dime-store sentimentality. The star attraction is Glenn Close, her bunny-boiling days far behind her. Here she’s unrecognizable as Vance’s granny, a foul-mouthed white-trash harridan they call “Mamaw” (may-maw). Close is wasted here, because they put all the effort into makeup instead of fleshing out her character into something other than a horrible old crone who says “fuck” a lot. And, oh yeah, at one point in a flashback she tries to immolate her drunken husband with gasoline and a match. This is another bit of family hearsay Vance writes about in passing. But like Glenn Close, it’s wasted in the film. Just one more random episode telling us that Mamaw was one nasty piece of work.
I read Hillbilly Elegy when it first came out in 2016, and have been revisiting bits of it on Kindle. Along with another book published around the same time (White Trash), Elegy provided an intriguing sidebar to the political news of that election season. Both books had been in the works for several years, so they weren’t thrown together on short notice as weapons against the Trump presidential campaign. But that is what they became. Nearly every print review and on-air discussion regarded them as a commentary upon the MAGA crowds: Rosetta Stones you could use to decipher the Trump phenomenon.
This theme came up whenever J.D. Vance appeared on talking-head shows. Interviewers would mention Hillbilly Elegy, but seldom ask Vance about anything in the book — his time in the Marines, his drug-addicted mother, or what constitutes a true hillbilly. No, it was always: “Tell us what all those poor-white Trump voters are angry about?” And Vance would say, “Oh, they’re aggrieved because the factory closed down and they feel left behind.”Because, you see, Trump’s supporters — so the story went — were mostly aggrieved working-class whites. Of course, this wasn’t true at all; exit polls in November showed Trump sweeping (white) voters of every sex, class, and income level. But during the campaign, this insinuation looked like wickedly clever disinformation, aimed at socially anxious middle-class voters afraid of slipping into prole-hood.
Or words to that effect. This routine never got old. Here’s the lede of a Slate interview in August 2016:
For the past year, no question has captivated journalists and pundits more than this one: Why do the people supporting Donald Trump support Donald Trump? In his new best-selling book . . . J.D. Vance tells a personal story about his family’s struggles in Appalachia and a political one about the white Americans who make up a strong base of support for the Republican nominee.
Slate toned down the headline after it went live, but the URL gives the game away. Trump! Racism! White working class!
When I first dipped into it, what struck me about Vance’s book was how profoundly dishonest it is. I don’t think this because the author was consciously disingenuous. But look: this Ohio native is not a hillbilly, and he’s not even named J. D. Vance. He used a variety of names growing up, and that’s the pseudonym he settled upon in adulthood, perhaps for the sake of his relatives’ privacy. What he is is a huckster who doesn’t know it. He thinks he has tender, tragic experiences to sell you, but when he opens his cardboard suitcase of samples, it’s just what you expect: snake-oil bottles, and they’re all empty. Our naïve huckster doesn’t think you’ll notice, or at least you won’t be mean-spirited enough to point it out. Vance’s emotional life, as expressed in the memoir, looks to be one part greeting-card sentiment and two parts clichés and third-hand verities. This is why the characterizations in the book (and the film) are so vapid.
Some other examples. Vance tells you his family tried to be good Christians. “The Christian faith stood at the center of our lives. . .” But — aha! “We never went to church, except on rare occasions.” And do we ever see them going to church, or at least praying? We do not. And although the book often seems to be a nonstop exercise in navel-gazing, you never find Vance wrestling with thorny issues of philosophy, let alone theology. Generalizations and easy factoids are more his bag. He tells you his ancestors were “Scots-Irish” because, I guess, he’s heard that’s what people in Appalachia are, but he’s never gone looking for details.
I do not identify with the WASPs of the Northeast. Instead, I identify with the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree. . . To understand me, you must understand that I am a Scots-Irish hillbilly at heart.
(Introduction, Hillbilly Elegy)
What a load of piffle. With a little bit of effort he could trace his genealogy and maybe find out some interesting particulars, but he hasn’t bothered to. Instead, he serves up vague family legends about how a distant cousin of his grandfather’s was “hillbilly royalty” because he married into the Hatfield clan (as in the Hatfield-McCoy feud). Not only is Mr. J. D. Vance not really J. D. Vance, he’s basically Mister Anomie.
Our Mr. Anomie needs to believe that he grew up in a landscape peopled with Godless degenerates who eschew both religion and book-larnin’ because he can then wonder rhetorically why they’ve all made a mess of their lives. Huckleberry Finn just had old Pap as an example of what happens when you turn off the strait-and-narrow; but in Vance-land, it’s implied that Pap Finns are standard issue.
Except of course they’re not. And if you actually read the book, and not the publisher’s blurb or a reviewer’s précis, you see Vance had a pretty comfortable suburban-style upbringing. A broken home, sure, and some minor instances of domestic violence, but he was always secure in the bosom of a loving family (grandparents and a sister, at least; and an uncle in Napa, California who’d fly him and his sister out for visits). There was always food on the table, so that J. D. turned into quite the chubster by fifth grade. In high school, his family gives him a set of golf clubs and he tries out for the school golf team. Not exactly what you’d call “underprivileged.” He didn’t make the team, but this ambition is not the mark of someone suffering from narrow horizons and scanty opportunities.
He wasn’t orphaned, abandoned, thrown out into the street, or held prisoner in a dirt-floor cabin like Huck. His much-married, neglectful mother may have been certifiable, but that part of his history isn’t much different from what you’ll find in New Canaan, Connecticut. My uncle once told me that when he went to the University of Pennsylvania in the Thirties, he was amazed at how all the preppy guys had parents who had been married two, three, four times. Divorce, like golf, was still mainly a sport of the haute-bourgeoisie. Vance pities himself because that easygoing moral decay has spread so far it’s touched his own family.
He imagines his circumstances have improved grandly when he gets to Yale Law School, but they really haven’t. He’s just found a new set of amoral people to whom he can pipe his tale of deprivation. Hard-luck upbringing is his calling card: he’s of hillbilly stock and attended a state college, poor baby. A professor and advisor at law school is none other than “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua, a Chinoise with a Jewish husband who preens herself on having instilled a creed of hard work, violin practice, and hard-nosed ambition into her daughters. Under the tutelage of Chua and his book editors, Vance re-engineers his sentimental memoir into a moral fable of Leftist sociology. Meanwhile, he freelances a bit, instructing National Review readers that his hillbilly confrères are all voting for Trump in 2016 because they’re backward and bigoted. As a capper, Vance marries a nonwhite (an East Indian named Usha), thereby achieving a level of dissolution seldom reached in fewer than four generations of trailer trash.
I’m being cruel and heartless to poor J. D. because I want to make a point. There’s some rich material in his story and it could easily fill out a screenplay treatment or two, though not the one currently on Netflix. Here’s one: A lower-middle-class guy from the Midwest prides himself on having “hillbilly” forebears, and then weaves himself a personal history in which all his growing pains and family eruptions are somehow traceable to this imagined heritage. He rides this horse to success, pleading a poverty-stricken and mangled childhood to get into Yale Law School, and then lands a fat corporate-law job in Silicon Valley. He secures a book contract on the strength of a tendentious memoir in which he airs his family’s dirty linen in public. He becomes a TV political pundit and specializes in telling the chattering classes exactly what they want to believe about the white working class and mainstream Americans in general.
A story, in short, of hard-nosed cynical ambition, right up there with The Wolf of Wall Street.