Up From Appalachia

‘Hillbilly Elegy’ proposes that to escape poverty, you just have to want to go to Yale bad enough

I watched Hillbilly Elegy, hoping that it might help explain something to me about the mindset of red state America, but all I got was Glenn Close in this lousy t-shirt.

Directed by: Ron Howard
Written by: J.D. Vance, Vanessa Taylor
Starring: Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Gabriel Basso, Owen Aztalos, Haley Bennett
Running time: 116 min

I suppose you can’t blame Ron Howard, who directed this adaptation of the controversial 2016 memoir by J.D. Vance, for wanting to downscale his focus from sociological to personal. Empathetic character studies are his wheelhouse. But nothing in this story of a poor Ohio boy who scraps his way to Yale Law School remotely connects what the country has been living through the past five years. There’s only a vague message about bootstraps and personal responsibility, and a whole lot of bad wigs.

Gabriel Basso stars as J.D. Vance, author of the memoir, whom we meet as an adult as he’s trying to navigate a fancy reception for Yalies seeking prestigious law internships. The forks at the place settings stymie him in particular, so he panic-calls his girlfriend (Frieda Pinto, in the quintessential helpful-woman-on-the-phone role) for a briefing. He doesn’t come from money, so how would he know cutlery nuance? Dude, you don’t have to have grown up rich, you only have to have seen “Pretty Woman.”

Howard tells the majority of the film in flashback, with young J.D. (Owen Asztalos) enduring his poverty-stricken upbringing in Kentucky and then Middletown, Ohio. He finds himself hemmed in by the unpredictability of his oft-abusive addict mom (Amy Adams), rampant familial chaos, the contagious despair of their downtrodden neighborhood, and a financial inability to even keep up with his school supplies. His sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett), a caring soul, telegraphs right away via her boyfriend-devotion that early motherhood will be her destiny. J.D.’s only reliable source of support and inspiration is his grandmother, Mamaw (Glenn Close), who chainsmokes and spits out salty aphorisms. It’s worth noting that Close, hammy as she looks, does bear a striking resemblance to the real Mamaw, seen over the credits.

It’s all overacted and embarrassing, and although I understand the appeal to an actor of these mawkish roles, uglying up as Oscar bait and all, it’s still disappointing to see Close and especially Adams get sucked into the clichés. Their surroundings are what you’d think, cluttered small houses, cars with filthy windows, omnipresent cigarettes, and slack jaws.

Hillbilly Elegy is a revolving carousel of bad and worse experiences that threaten to subsume the protagonist, until he escapes. That his ultimate salvation comes via an elite legal firm, paired with the fact that real-life Vance went on to become a venture capitalist, pretty handily tells you the movie’s position on why his family, and everyone around them, floundered. They just didn’t really want to get out. “You gotta decide,” Mamaw tells J.D. either just before or after kicking him out of her car. “You wanna be somebody or not?”

There’s an alternate telling of this story in which we might learn about Lindsay’s abstinence-only sex education utterly failing her; about the vicious and relentless marketing of OxyContin to poor communities; about our country’s abandonment of quality public education, and on and on. This is also a movie about rural white America that doesn’t even contain a hint of racism or anti-immigrant sentiment, which also seems unrealistic.  When adult J.D. shows his mom a picture of his girlfriend, her first question is “What is she?”, and I thought maybe we were finally in for a hard look at white working-class racism. But no, her only follow-up is that the gf is “pretty.”

How can you adapt a tome that people have cited as a guidebook to red America, and completely abdicate the problematic parts? It’s just generic, sad, crushing poverty, and one guy who survived to tell the harrowing tale from the lofty, condescending heights of his post-Yale career. This is no hillbilly elegy. It’s yet another paean to the Ivy League.

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Sara Stewart

Sara Stewart is a film critic and a culture and entertainment writer whose work is featured in the New York Post, CNN.com, and more. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Sara's work can be fully appreciated at sarastewart.org. But not on Twitter, because she’s been troll-free since 2018.

10 thoughts on “Up From Appalachia

  • November 29, 2020 at 3:27 am

    Why are most critics such cynics? Do they never find any book, novel, movie or even music good?

    • December 5, 2020 at 1:28 am

      No they like plenty of movies, but not movies that show white people sympathetically.

      She even says the movie failed to show them as racists so she doesn’t like it. It failed to live up to her stereotype.

  • December 5, 2020 at 11:06 am

    It would be nice if you took your political views out of your work. It’s a movie about a poor kid that made it to Yale. No mention of politics in the movie ( the book might be different, but then you can do a book review) and the acting is great. Is it because this movie shows that white people can also be poor why you hate it so much? Stay safe and have a good day. Dave from Canada.

    • December 6, 2020 at 12:57 am

      Another activist posing as a film critic.

  • December 5, 2020 at 1:03 pm

    I won’t be watching this movie because these types of stories don’t interest me.

    But criticizing the lack of ugliness in the film that we know exists in communities such as these seems a bit hollow.

    If a filmmaker wants to include it, sure, go ahead.

    But if a movie was made about a young black man who made it out of the hood to Yale, and a critic who didn’t come from that same environment said, “Why did we not get to see the rampant misogyny? Not one black woman was called bitch. How about the virulent homophobia that we know exists in a culture that forces young men to believe they have to be as aggressive and toxically masculine as possible just to survive? Seems unrealistic to me”, I would wonder if that person is a racist who just doesn’t like seeing black people portrayed in a way that doesn’t include the ugliest stereotypes of their poorest communities and doesn’t conform to the critic’s bigotry.

    I haven’t seen the movie and don’t intend to do so. So I don’t know how unrealistic it is to not include the ugliest aspects of their culture. Because I don’t know how many characters are even in the film or if it even intends to show the brutal reality of the culture. But to say it would have been more realistic for the mother to express racism towards her sons girlfriend seems downright hateful to me.

    Is it possible that maybe… his mother just isn’t a racist? *Gasp* Maybe she’s “one of the good ones”. 🤷‍♂️

  • December 5, 2020 at 8:46 pm

    Oh god, another white middle aged women activists posing as a “journalists” the movie was a great pull yourself up by the bootstraps story. Don’t let these activist tell you this movie was bad.

  • December 15, 2020 at 10:01 am

    The whiny conservatives in here are hilarious.

    • April 17, 2021 at 9:55 am

      So is your predictable snarky comment. Don’t engage them in argument, simply dismiss. Go work for Twitter, Facebook, Google. That’s what they do

  • January 3, 2021 at 4:27 pm

    “This is also a movie about rural white America that doesn’t even contain a hint of racism or anti-immigrant sentiment, which also seems unrealistic.”

    This one sentence tells you why so many Americans voted for Trump despite his despicable personal behavior. It epitomizes the condescension of wealthy, educated whites like Stewart — people whose principal interaction with ethnic minorities is as “masters” of the “help.” Guess what Stewart: a lot of us rural white working-class people work alongside Black people, Basque, Hmong, Latino and many others. They are our co-workers, friends, and in-laws and we get along great. Stop projecting!

  • March 29, 2021 at 10:51 pm

    This chick sucks. Keeps your political views out of everything. Nobody cares.


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