‘Hillbilly Elegy’ book wrong – and they’re getting the movie wrong, too

Film critics haven’t had a good word to say about the new Netflix movie “Hillbilly Elegy”.

Critics called him “BS of the Oscar season”, “terribly wrong”, “Yokel Hokum”, “ridiculously bad” and just plain “horrible”.


I admit I’m delighted when I read professional critics destroying the film, which is based on J.D. Vance details his dramatic class migration from a mid-sized city in Ohio to the sacred halls of Yale Law School. I was expecting the worst due to my dislike of the book, and these reviews confirmed my expectations.

But once I saw the movie, I felt like it was being judged harshly by the talkative classes – the people who write the reviews and try to create meaning for the rest of us. Indeed, the film is a serious depiction of the most dramatic parts of the book: a lower-middle-class family caught in the midst of addiction.
Everyday viewers seem to find the film quite amusing – it has solid reviews from audiences on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes.

So why the huge gap between critical response and audience reaction? Could this be yet another sign of the growing class division in the country?

A bootstrap manifest
The film’s negative reviews are a radical departure from critical critics’ warm embrace of the book, released in 2016, when Vance was only 31.

Telling his story about overcoming his mother’s addiction and the financial and family precariousness that goes with it, Vance credits his mother and father, along with luck and hard work.

Quite right. But he doesn’t recognize the government structures – the elementary and middle schools, the military and the GI Bill, the public university where he earned his degree – that have greased the skates of his steep rise to the ruling class. Worse still, Vance explicitly blames laziness as the culprit of those left behind, with only a cursory attention to the impact of policies that encouraged the relocation of manufacturing jobs and the weakening of the social safety net.

The book is not subtle in its message: the grunts of the working class are to blame for their own struggles. If they quit their nonsense, go to church and stay married, it would be fine.
However, commentators across the political spectrum have greeted the book with a big wet kiss. Published months before Donald Trump’s election, it was perfectly at the time of the zeitgeist, and Vance’s vast personal anecdote suddenly became the authoritative text on the enigmatic white working class, all alleged supporters of Trump. The New York Times flattered his “insightful sociological analysis,” ignoring Vance’s one-sided invocation of academic data and literature, while prestigious think tanks such as the Brookings Institution elevated Vance to the rank of expert.

I was one of the few progressive elites who rejected the first and broad acceptance of the book by the media. Of course, I was moved by Vance’s compelling biography, which included many of my hallmarks: peasant roots, dependent parenting, family violence and, ultimately, a dramatic class leap in elite legal circles.

But I was put off by Vance’s singular focus on personal responsibility and using his story to promote an agenda antagonistic to the social safety net. Many of Vance’s positions are contrary to my academic work on the white working class and rural America.

Vance also suggests that his family, in their best and worst manifestations, is representative of Appalachia. However, like all families, Vance’s is typical in some respects but not in others. And that’s what angered so many Appalachians when the book came out. Not everyone is addicted to drugs and not everyone is a coal miner. Also, not all Appalachians are white. Many lead boring lives.

From curiosity to contempt
I wasn’t happy when Ron Howard and Netflix paid $ 45 million for the film’s rights, because I didn’t want the book to have an even wider audience. But the film puts aside Vance politics and instead focuses on three generations of the Vance family saga. This means that the positive potential I saw in the book is at the heart of the film.

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