'Hillbilly Elegy': What Appalachia Ain't

Gary Lovely
"Hillbilly Elegy"

Ron Howard’s film adaptation of J. D. Vance’s memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” premiered on Netflix two weeks ago and I’ve had a knot in my stomach since. I was born and raised in Salyersville, Kentucky, a 30-minute drive from Jackson, the city where Vance claims to have spent childhood summers. (He has since relocated to Cincinnati where he works as a venture capitalist — you know, a true spokesman for the working class.) The film tells the story of Vance’s upbringing in a way I can only describe as self-congratulatory and totally demeaning to Appalachian culture.

In the first 30 seconds of the film, the camera follows a country road in supposed 1997 Jackson, showing the cartoonish faces of bearded hillbillies as they toss trash in heaps and walk to outhouses, immediately reducing an entire group of people to a snaggle-toothed caricature. 

From that point on, the plot was everything I expected it to be, with the bonus of a few horribly delivered one-liners from Glenn Close, who portrays Vance’s tough-talking Mamaw. A young Vance immediately gets his ass kicked (hilarious) at what he calls the “SWIM HOLE!” (stupid) by some older boys who can be heard screaming, “Go back to Ohio, boy!” Eventually he is rescued by the men in his family, who immediately punch a child in the stomach.

After leaving Kentucky and arriving in Vance’s childhood home of Middletown, Ohio, the rest of the film is sloppily cobbled together by flashbacks in which Vance is either a young boy screaming while his mother, Bev (Amy Adams), descends into addiction, or an adult whining because he’s home from Yale, bordering on missing an important interview because his mother has overdosed. At one point, while attempting to check his mother into a rehabilitation facility, an older Vance yawps, “Do you actually want to be dead, Mom? Or are you just too lazy to try?” The line echoes Vance’s bootstrapper ideology, repeated throughout his memoir.

“Hillbilly Elegy” tries and fails to be something it isn’t — an honest look at the strife of growing up poor in Appalachia. Addiction and poverty in the mountains are deeply rooted, institutionalized issues, but to understand these specific circumstances of working class people, you must first understand the failings of those institutions.

Here’s the thing about Appalachia: Most of the time it ain’t brick sidewalks and manicured lawns, and a lot of the time poverty is on full public display. But that doesn’t make it a peep show, and that’s all this film is, an elitist perversion of life in the mountains.