J.D. Vance’s 2016 memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, caught the wave of a certain moment, appearing in the wake of Donald Trump’s surprisingly easy defeat of establishment GOP candidates whose brands included everything from libertarian to social conservative to blue-blood to Reaganite purist to Midwestern moderate. With every flavor available to choose from in the GOP lineup, why Trump — and, specifically, why the near-fanatical devotion of working-class whites to this gaudy Manhattan billionaire?
The book was expected to perform only modestly, but after being brought to national attention by an interview with Rod Dreher that caused the website of The American Conservative to crash because of heavy traffic, Hillbilly Elegy went on to gain widespread coverage and to sell three million copies. A film version was perhaps inevitable, and, when it was released on Netflix last month, it was equally inevitable that some critics were displeased that director Ron Howard didn’t make the movie they would have made, had they been people who make movies.
Trump’s 2016 election prompted much hand-wringing in the commentariat about the need to find out who these people were who had just put the Orange Man into the White House. After a few weeks, however, the question of why working-class America felt the country’s elites had failed them gave way to an easier and less insightful path of resisting Trump and his supporters rather than understanding them.
Hillbilly Elegy the book is a mixture of autobiography, family history, and musings on various crises facing Middle America, such as the opioid epidemic that touched Vance’s own mother. The film version is well-directed by Howard, who as a child cut his acting teeth on The Andy Griffith Show, set in the Southern rural setting of Mayberry, North Carolina — a town that, were it real, would likely have gone heavily for Trump in each of the recent presidential elections.
In bringing a complex and layered story like Vance’s to the screen, choices had to be made, and Howard’s choice (involving Vance himself as co-writer) was to use personal narratives and flashback vignettes: his mother’s chaotic life and drug abuse; the character of Vance’s barely less flawed grandmother, to whom he owed what stability he had growing up; and Vance’s own journey from that unstable background to law school at Yale. The film suffers from a lack of focus, including the question of who the main character really is — we know the film is about J.D. (played by Gabriel Basso), but Glenn Close’s portrayal of his chain-smoking, foul-mouthed grandmother dominates, and the highest dramatic moments belong to his mother (played with sensitivity by Amy Adams) and her struggle with heroin.
Next to that, J.D.’s crises can seem a bit forced: will the rough Kentucky boys drown him in the swimming hole? Will his grandmother be able to pry him away from potheads who are the only kids willing to be his friends? Will he figure out which fork to use at the fancy law student dinner where he hopes to land a summer clerkship? Will he get the second interview, and if he does, will he be able to drive cross-country in time for it, assuming that one of his many credit cards has enough room on it to fill the tank with gas?
Critics who highlight the melodrama of such scenes aren’t wrong from a cinematic perspective. But for viewers from a working class background with little money, few if any role models, no connections, and no urban friends who would ever imagine that an intelligent and poised white adult might actually need a guide for basic aspects of navigating an upper-middle-class world, these sorts of events, all taking place behind a stoic face, are the relatable stuff of life-altering drama. Such moments rarely play themselves out on the screen in non-comedic settings, and there is value in everyone having the chance to see themselves portrayed with relative realism and an absence of irony.
Leaving aside the point that attempting to understand the Trump voter through a purely hillbilly lens can only charitably be described as incomplete, one suspects that at least part of the animus directed at this film by highly educated reviewers is a wish that people like Vance’s family didn’t exist (or at least that they didn’t have to be politically considered because they have the franchise). And somewhere beneath the hostility, perhaps, lies a half-conscious awareness that they’ve had four years to come to an honest understanding of the people they are seeing in this film — and didn’t spend that time wisely.