Hillbilly Elegy bakes conservatism into the text



Ron Howard really leans into the elegy part of this adaptation of a NYTimes besteller for Netflix. The technically-proficient biopic rues a backwards nostalgia and fatalist future, the Eden of childhood summers in Hill Country, and a doomed future. The Hans Zimmer score marches, dirge-like, in the background, a variegated epic with sweeping strings. It’s an effective piece of music, patriotic almost, just shy of sympathy-manipulation. There’s already enough of that on screen. The movie flashes back to childhood traumas, the makings of a man, to periodically to revive your waning attention and cull your emotions.


If you don’t know by now, J.D. Vance grew up in an Ohio suburb, which isn’t exactly Hill Country (Appalachia, from which “hillbillies” hail), but his grandma was from there so he proudly lays claim to it as well. Eventually he graduated from Yale Law (undergrad was at Ohio State, an experience unremarked upon in the movie), clerked for Brett Kavanaugh, and wrote the book on which this movie is based. He is in most views of the world a success.


I remember the book in passing — notable book sales and glowing reviews, a sociology of the white Trump voter, the obstinacy and numbers of which were proliferating before our very eyes. What I didn’t know about were the pans and criticisms of its narrow-mindedness, which in retrospect were inevitable — the second half of the title is “A Memoir of A Family and Culture in Crisis,” a telling blanket statement if ever there was one. Vance from the start deigned to speak for Hill Country, and its inhabitants said shut the fuck up.


Among the lessons learned about the poor working class from this movie: Family is all you’ve got, even if they’re flawed. Your mother will make your life hell, but also make you into who you are. Society commands an unerring piety for elders and even greater respect for the dead. None of these seem very original or inspiring. In fact, these seem generic, wholly relatable family-first values transferable to a number of different cultures — which is perhaps the point. These subthemes spike the air, but don’t cohere into a thundering mass. The film’s clincher, which I only deduced because of Hans, and Glenn Close, who gets to do a lot of Serious Acting, is as follows: the death of success comes from a lack of trying. This myth is illustrated by J.D.’s drug-addict mother (Amy Adams, never not good, but this seems too easy) without further investigation into the context of her circumstances. (I wasn’t expecting an expose on Mallinckrodt, but acknowledging America’s opioid epidemic or even basic screenplay deets on how she gets/affords the drugs would’ve sufficed.)


Despite Howard’s refusal to make this into a political picture, an exquisite conservatism is baked into the text: to make a way for yourself, you only need to work hard. The memoir extrapolated a political lesson from personal experience and the blinkered film elevates this ideology. The movie has appeased very few. Viewers from these regions rightfully protest the stereotypical presentation of their lives, and those who already overvalue personality responsibility will stick to their guns, perpetuating myths about the poor. A convenient capper to the Trump era.