How Hillbilly Elegy tries and fails to show the ‘real’ America | Ron howard
By now, a week after its release on Netflix, a critical consensus has emerged: Hillbilly Elegy is a bad movie, maybe one of the worst of the year. That didn’t stop the film, also released in select theaters on November 11, from gaining popularity; it’s one of the 10 most-watched Netflix movies of the past week, possibly thanks in part to name recognition from its source material, JD Vance’s 2016 memoir of the same name, and in part thanks to two stars. filmmaker Amy Adams and Glenn Close, who wear prosthetics and mom’s overalls for S-capital wrestling roles in what, as some have noted, is the worst bait type Oscar.
In the weeks following the release of Hillbilly Elegy, many writers recounted the accumulation of factors that transformed what was probably a well-meaning project, written by The Shape of Water screenwriter Vanessa Taylor and directed by Ron Howard, in a lamentable mess of stereotypes. Among them: Howard’s film sand Vance’s memories, by suppressing any conviction or intuition; the memoir itself – of a man who went from a humble upbringing at Yale Law School to work for Peter Thiel before allying himself with marginal Conservative blogger Rod Dreher (an alignment erased from the film) – is deeply flawed; both frustratingly reproduce a panoply of tropes of Appalachian (white) hillbillies; as a movie, Hillbilly Elegy is sort of both histrionic and boring.
To this list I would add that Hillbilly Elegy is very bad at its deviation from who and what it is even – a caricature of “hillbillies” in a non-rural location but still other (the majority of the movie is set in Middletown , Ohio, where Vance grew up). This setting is relegated to an ambient, unmoored backdrop of “real America” to one man’s escape story. As with most Hollywood works attempting to communicate about the white working class, or “the other” America, Hillbilly Elegy ultimately says a lot more about her imaginary audience and the stories some Americans seek to find in films about the city. economic struggle in the United States, as the people it claims to represent.
Part of this mess is simply that the decision to adapt the book, which has been adopted by many experts as a skeleton for understanding Trump’s victory in 2016, making Vance an overnight figure in the youthful conservative sphere. , has aged very badly. Bootstraps conservatism aside, Vance’s memoir of his family’s escape from eastern Kentucky to Middletown, Ohio, from a childhood marked by upheaval at the Marines, Ohio State and then Yale. Law, were convincing, in the same way that any non-celebrity reflecting on their personal life the arc can be. But it probably never would have been treated on the big screen without the rapturous and misguided attention given to the book as a manual of Trumpism, a manual that put too much emphasis on the poverty of the white working class and made racism excusable. inherent in its ascent.
Neither book nor film, as many Appalachian writers and other small towns in America pointed out, reflects the region or a precise vision of the economic struggle in the United States. In fact, the film barely portrayed the Appalachians (or at least, the white, Scottish-Irish population Vance praised) except for its opening scenes. Besides the scenes of Vance’s girlfriend in New Haven and her struggles with unrealistic and incurable Yale elites at the start of the film, the majority of Hillbilly Elegy is set in Middletown, a small town of about 50,000 people in the middle of the city. road between Cincinnati and Dayton in southwest Ohio.
Middletown certainly struggled with the decline in manufacturing jobs in the 1970s and 1980s, and the 2008 recession, which cuts in two, away from prying eyes and the unspoken, the double chronology (Vance’s childhood in the late 90s and his return home in 2011) in Hillbilly Elegy. It is not a rural or Appalachian region, but a place that comes in and out of loose classifications in America, much like the oft-evangelized “middle class” who increasingly does not exist, at least in the form of stability and upward mobility that it is supposed to represent. Middletown is, like its name, a float, too big for a small town and not quite a town, a category notoriously hard to pin down on TV and movies, but really a real place with real people. (While part of Hillbilly Elegy was shot on location in Ohio, the majority of Middletown’s scenes were shot in Georgia, where tax breaks made the state stand in for the non-coastal United States. )
Vance’s book told a story of Middletown in decline that was partly true; it would be difficult to raise a family of five and pay college today on just one postal service salary, like my grandmother’s family did in Middletown in the 1930s and 1940s (with help, like so many white families at the time, from GI bills). Then again, this is difficult all over America today, as what is left of the middle class is drained of student loans, other debt, and / or medical bills. None of this is directly discussed in the film, and it is rationalized in the book into a conservative argument of personal responsibility and the “hillbilly” cultural issue. But this interest in “understanding” the “real” America, both hazy concepts that crumble on inspection, and having answers for Trump served on a platter, sanitized from racism, systemic injustices or Extractive capitalism, certainly informed widespread interest in the book and film, and charitable readings of the film (see: positive review from conservative ghoul Ben Shapiro, retweeted by Howard as part of the promotion of his film).
Hillbilly Elegy might have been predisposed to be a bad movie, but there is clearly an audience for a movie set in a real location, in recent times, that captures certain aspects of the country outside of the big cities, a portrayal of the strange hybrid America in which you can be both bourgeois and financially precarious for years, in which gentrification and decline, progress and regression coexist and oppose each other. There are great movies to be made in and about the Appalachians, or the Middletowns of America. I’d even watch a better Hillbilly Elegy, one that captures the fun and daily fun between cartoonish fights, as suggested by a series of photographs and home videos that accompany the credits. But this Hillbilly Elegy, with her Oscar bait of power and her road to nowhere, is just the terrible endpoint of a deceptive and superficial reflection.