Hillbilly Elegy—the tale of a poor Appalachian white boy done good, who then blames his kin for not replicating his results—has been panned almost as vigorously as Cats. It’s full of hard-to-watch scenes of addiction and abuse, of opportunities never even dangled close enough to squander, and what many critics saw as exaggerated poverty porn. There are Mamaw’s (Glenn Close) strings of profanity and podunk Southern wisdom, Bev’s (Amy Adams) over-the-top meltdowns, and author J.D. Vance’s (Gabriel Basso) feelings of inadequacy among snobby Ivy League types. Could anyone really yell as much as Bev, some writers have wondered? Aren’t there any nice moments in these people’s lives? Has anyone really been made to feel so embarrassed by not knowing what fork to use, or attending—gasp—a state school? Do people really reuse plastic cutlery?
I grew up in a nearby patch of rural Appalachia to a single mother of four who earned $12,000 a year for most of my childhood, and all of the above rang true for me. (Also the fried bologna sandwiches, which are excellent.) My mother hailed from white sharecroppers who didn’t have electricity until the 1950s. My grandmother dressed like Mamaw. My great-grandmother, who always had a spit cup for her dipping habit, had a third-grade education and was fond of making us pick the switch we’d be whipped with for talking back. I didn’t see a doctor for anything like medical care until I was 19. Multiple family members battled addiction, and couldn’t break the cycle of abuse. It took years for my mother to increase her wages by even a narrow margin. There was more yelling than I care to remember. We were people my own Appalachian grandmother described once as “folks who can’t win for losing.”
I got out. But as a journalist, I’ve never been in a pitch room with someone from my background. So I winced when Vance, in that early dinner scene with the Ivy Leaguers, was ashamed for simply being from all that, and for not knowing which fork is which. (I learned to dodge such tells altogether, and laugh along at the jokes at my expense.) I could relate when Vance’s girlfriend, Usha (Freida Pinto), mocked him for pronouncing syrup like sirrup.
In one scene, Bev screams at J.D. that she was second in her high school class, and could’ve done whatever she wanted, but she didn’t have anyone taking her to the library and telling her she could go to college. I recalled my own mother, who had her first child at 19, yelling as we ransacked the trailer for extra food stamps one winter. She was so smart in high school that she had skipped a grade, she told us, only to get knocked up. And so here we were, scrounging for charity.
J.D.’s frustrations with his family also felt familiar, because in order to muster the will to leave a place, you have to mentally set yourself apart from it—though in his case apart also means above. I can’t blame Vance for wanting better, and I sympathize with the choice to break ties with toxic family dynamics in order to survive them. But ultimately I part ways with him because rather than compassion, he chooses to willfully ignore the fact that the real reason he got out is that he was extended the hand that the others weren’t (being white and male never hurts). Worse, he prescribes conservative, Trump-supporting grit, resolve, and ultimately judgment—all of it taken from standard-issue Republican talking points—for a whole population of people: You can’t help people who won’t help themselves, etc. Anyone ought to be able to claw their way out, since he did.
Vance got the kind of help that makes all the difference when class is all that’s working against you. There’s a scene where Mamaw comes to take teenage Vance (Owen Asztalos) away from Bev, his drug-addicted, volatile, mentally unstable mother to give him a fighting chance. He’s started drinking, smoking pot, and running with the wrong crowd. Bev, who shouldn’t wait up for any good mothering awards, insists he’s just acting like all teenagers do. But Mamaw, who wants better for him, isn’t having it: “He needs somebody to pay some fucking attention before it’s too late,” she hisses.
She’s not wrong. Appalachia was abandoned by the same coal interests and factories that poisoned them. It’s in the grips of an opioid addiction going on decades. Its people have been lied to by politicians promising jobs and prosperity—and they support those politicians anyway—and mocked and caricatured relentlessly by the rest of the country. So, yes, if only somebody would pay some fucking attention, maybe we could turn this thing around.
Hillbilly Elegy, both the film and the memoir it’s based on, is the story of a guy who did turn this thing around, but only for himself. He drew attention to the problems of the region, just the wrong kind of attention. That is to say, Vance Trojan-horsed us, first painting a sympathetic portrait of his impoverished family and region, only to dubiously credit personal responsibility for his success, and a lack of it for everybody else’s stagnation. It’s a blame-the-victim conclusion that allows Vance and his readers to gawk at and pity the poor white trash, but ultimately wash their hands of it all and walk away.
In the film—which largely sidesteps socioeconomic theories in favor of telling one family’s story—we jump back and forth from Vance (Basso) as a present-day Yale Law School grad and his past hardships in Kentucky and Ohio. This is a deeply dysfunctional family with pain baked into their DNA. The main tension is whether present-day Vance will make it back up North in time for an important interview at a prestigious law firm. The holdup? His mother is using again, and his sister has called him home to help. That means he has to face the past he thought he escaped, only to find out, as I often have, that some backstories can’t be outrun.
Though the film version is a far more human story than the memoir—it’s about a family eventually rallying for one of its own—Vance plays the hero of his own life, and his bootstrapper attitude creeps in, especially at the end, with a voice-over about taking responsibility. But in that same voice-over, Vance also cites his grandmother’s influence on his success, acknowledging that he didn’t exactly reach Yale fueled by his own moxie. If anything, this story proves just how critical it is to have role models and mentors, so that untold numbers of bright kids from poor backgrounds don’t remain invisible. That’s something director Ron Howard seems to understand that Vance himself doesn’t.