Hillbilly Elegy movie review: Netflix’s adaptation of J.D. Vance’s controversial book is bafflingly awful
Near the beginning of Netflix’s Hillbilly Elegy — possibly the worst movie I’ve seen in years — J.D. Vance (an inert Gabriel Basso) attends a dinner reception. J.D. is a first-year law student at Yale, and the event is supposed to introduce students seeking summer internships to law firm partners who wish to hire them.
J.D. hails from Middletown, Ohio, where his grandparents moved from the hill country of east Kentucky. So far, he has spent his time at Yale feeling like a fish out of water. He’s already told us this in voiceover. But the obvious purpose of the dinner scene is to show us just how not-Yale he really is.
The first indicator: When J.D. asks for white wine and the waiter asks what kind he would like, he freezes, then is saved by a kind dining companion’s choice on his behalf. The second indicator arrives when J.D. sits down at the table and panics about the number of forks on the table (look, we’ve all been there). He excuses himself and calls his girlfriend, who is more sophisticated than he is, and she walks him through fork selection.
Both of these anecdotes appear in the real-life Vance’s account of this real-life dinner, which he recounts in his bestselling 2016 nonfiction book Hillbilly Elegy, now adapted into a Netflix feature film. The 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.
Vance’s book weaves his individual story into his family’s story, but the basic arc is a familiar American one: His grandparents moved from Kentucky to Ohio in search of a better life, which they found in some measure. But various circumstances, most of which he attributes to aspects of “hillbilly” culture along with larger political and social factors, kept the family from reaching their true potential. He managed to get out, first joining the military, then enrolling at Ohio State, and eventually being accepted at Yale Law. Vance blends this arc with larger commentary on the state of the white working class in the US, trying to provide a window onto the people he loves, the challenges they face, and the reasons they vote the way they do.
It takes only a mild sniff to catch a strange whiff of the self-congratulatory. (Vance is one of the ones who got out, and as he tells it, that’s because he made good choices.) And Hillbilly Elegy is a strangely incurious book, purporting to explain various phenomena (like working-class white distrust of media, or his family’s history of rampant domestic violence) without much in-depth exploration of the factors in play.
But the book is affectionate, despite its masked disdain, and it has something to say, which explains why people — especially white, educated liberals — fell over themselves to read it in the wake of a presidential election that took them by surprise.
So what happened with the movie? I can only speculate, and my best guess is that Howard (whose company bought the film rights to the book) read Hillbilly Elegy as an uplifting tale of family and upward mobility and decided it would make a nice old-fashioned American movie. He apparently also decided to make it studiously unpolitical, not touching Trump or the election at all, presumably to appeal to the all-important “broad audience.”
Then he got Glenn Close and Amy Adams to join the cast, in the kind of roles that normally garner awards attention: Movie stars transforming themselves into “normal” people and hollering a lot. They shot a few scenes in Middletown, Ohio, and a lot of scenes in Georgia, where the tax breaks encourage the film industry to go when it wants to replicate virtually anywhere else in America.
All well-intentioned, I think. But wow, does the result fall flat on its face. The first issue is in its narrative construction. Unlike Vance’s memoir, which is told chronologically, Hillbilly Elegy runs along two parallel time tracks. One follows J.D. through the days after that fateful Yale dinner, when he must return home to care for his mother, who has overdosed on heroin (again). The other starts out as flashbacks, moments J.D. remembers from his childhood triggered by something in the present, but eventually becomes just a second timeline in the past.
In the past timeline, J.D.’s mother Bev (Adams) is a nurse who’s affectionate toward her children one minute, and abusive the next. She has a string of boyfriends. J.D.’s childhood is sometimes a happy one. His grandmother, Mamaw (Close), shields him from the brunt of her daughter’s rage, but can’t protect him from everything.
In the present timeline, Mamaw has passed away years earlier. J.D.’s older sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett), who’s now married with children of her own, still lives in Middletown. She calls to ask him to return home after Bev ends up in the hospital. And once he does, J.D. must decide whether he can even return to Yale for the interview that could land him the summer internship he desperately needs if he’s going to stay in school.
It’s never easy to articulate why a movie is boring, especially if the movie is as full of explosive fights and trips to the hospital as this one. My best explanation is that every scene seems to end with someone either calling the cops or losing their temper in a spectacular public fashion; at one point, someone is even lit on fire. (Once in a while there’s a pause so that someone can give young J.D. a dramatic speech about Family or Loyalty or Hard Work.) Every scene peaks, with little to break it up, and thus the extraordinary becomes monotonous. There’s little actual story to follow.
But Hillbilly Elegy is also just strangely gross. It’s not that actors can’t play characters who have lived very different lives from them — especially two actors as versatile as Adams and Close. But their performances here feel bizarrely theatrical, as if they had to wind themselves up to Perform, with a capital P, as strange creatures they’ve never encountered before. They’re not humanizing portrayals; I watched an official Q&A about the film following an advanced screening, and as its moderator joked, they feel like memes waiting to happen. (I did not find this to be a great joke.)
What might have solidified the movie’s failure for me was a comment Close made during that same Q&A, when she described the character of Mamaw as not all that different from other characters she’d played in “full drag,” such as Cruella de Vil, Norma Desmond, or Albert Nobbs — all larger-than-life caricatures of one kind or another. In this case, her costume was glasses, a cigarette, a big T-shirt, and layers of prosthetics intended, she said, to keep you from thinking about her as Glenn Close and allow you to just think about Mamaw.
But here is the thing: Mamaw is not like Cruella de Vil or Albert Nobbs. She has a thick accent and some tip-top zingers that she hurls at misbehaving children, to be sure. So does my grandmother. Mamaw is a recognizable grandma. She isn’t a curiosity or an icon; she is a regular American lady. Similarly, Bev is a woman with an unhappy life and a drug problem. She is, in that way, strikingly normal.
Mamaw and Bev are just one of the myriad ways in which Hillbilly Elegy seems to be simultaneously telling you a story and watching from the sidelines, waiting for your reaction. Aren’t these people crazy?! it seems to be saying. How exotic! And yet, they’re humans just like you and me!
But they’ll only really feel exotic to those who think that a fried bologna sandwich or watching Terminator a hundred times or having to split a medical bill across several credit cards is unusual. It feels like Hillbilly Elegy’s filmmakers think that way — that these details are set pieces, rather than just character color. The movie is like an “elite” apologia for ignoring these poor, downtrodden fellow Americans, except without any idea who those people are.
There’s nothing noble about presenting ordinary people as larger-than-life caricatures who must be performed in “full drag.” Hillbilly Elegy is a movie designed to let comfortable white liberals feel like they have learned something, and thus have done something meaningful to make the world a better, more inclusive place. And unlike the book, I doubt it even leaves room for comfortable white conservatives to do the same.
I finished the film wondering what this deeply non-political version of Hillbilly Elegy thinks it is about. (It’s worth noting that, for a movie about a very specific group of people from a very specific region, Hillbilly Elegy seems hard-pressed to include any markers that identify its characters as pointedly Appalachian, except one scene in which Mamaw says that hill people “respect our dead.”) It strips out Vance’s sociopolitical commentary entirely, which, however you feel about the commentary, leaves the story without an all-important ingredient: a political and sociological point.
A hint of the movie’s intended message comes in a sequence where young J.D. — having apparently only realized … something … about his family’s poverty when he sees Mamaw split her Meals on Wheels dinner so he can have some — starts suddenly working hard at school. In the space of a montage, he goes from failing to excelling. All he had to do was realize he could break the cycle, and go break it! That’s all it takes! Why, the movie implies, can’t the rest of his family just do the same?
Hillbilly Elegy seems like a movie with huge aspirations — a work of art that wants to reveal something to the audience, like Winter’s Bone, or Minding the Gap, or the upcoming Nomadland. It does nothing of the sort. It’s just a movie about the hardships of poor people, and one kid who made good because he tried hard. It lacks any thoughtful sense of why J.D. succeeded where others have not, and how, and what it means, and whether there’s some reason beyond laziness that any given family might struggle.
An elegy is a mournful poem of reflection. Often, it’s a lament, a song sung for the dead. But Hillbilly Elegy is no elegy. It’s not reflective enough to even understand the living.
Hillbilly Elegy opens in select theaters on November 11 and premieres on Netflix on November 24.