Commentary: An Aspiring Appalachian Filmmaker on What to Consider Before Watching ‘Hillbilly Elegy’

The movie trailer. Photo: Netflix

Anyone brave enough to travel home and spend this Thanksgiving locked down with their family will no doubt find themselves in desperate need of entertainment. So, as movie awards season shifts conveniently from theater seats to our comfortable couches, we might be tempted to indulge in some post-feast Oscar bait. 

After all, movies are frequently harmless and digestible, and Ron Howard has proven himself a serviceable director for tonally listless stories about scruffy underdogs. This makes him the perfect candidate for adapting the story of “a culture in crisis,” “Hillbilly Elegy,” which became practically the story for perpetuating a nationwide misunderstanding of Appalachia by neglecting to thoroughly deconstruct its stereotypes in favor of pretending to boldly sympathize with its sensibilities. 

As an aspiring filmmaker, it’s easy to see why this narrative appeals so much to a mass audience. After all, Appalachia has severely struggled with access to the kind of technology that makes communication possible. In some rural communities, receiving a text message could be considered a victory, let alone having high speed internet at your fingertips. Inconsistent access to tech that makes communication possible today hinders the region’s ability to effectively speak for itself, which makes Appalachian themes difficult to express beyond regional literature. This allows a Hollywood hotshot like Howard to glean a dark horse retrospective for conventional beats when it rises on the New York Times bestseller list and falls right into his lap.

Upon the novel’s release in 2016, however, “Hillbilly Elegy” was immediately accused of misrepresenting the communities it attempted to illustrate to outsiders. The general public saw J.D. Vance’s story as a window into working class America during one of the most controversial elections in recent history, but his legitimacy as an appropriate voice for the entire region was quickly called into question. Numerous articles removing Vance physically and culturally from Appalachia were published, not to mention a 432-page counter argument on the generalizations he wrote about poverty titled “Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy” in 2019. 

Clearly, these weren’t just bad reviews. This was a special kind of pushback. 

The film starts Glenn Close and Amy Adams. Photo: Lacey Terrell/Netflix

For context, Vance writes about his upbringing in Middletown, Ohio, under a hectic hillbilly homelife. A modern-day advocate for education and an undoubtedly gifted writer, Vance recounts being raised primarily by his grandparents amidst his mother’s struggle with opioid addiction while often visiting his great grandparents in eatern Kentucky, eventually “escaping” the hillbilly culture into which he inserted himself, graduating from Yale and securing a higher-class career thanks in no small part to the diligence of his hardworking Mamaw and Papaw.

Vance’s memoir repeatedly asserts that he is, to his core, a “hillbilly,” but this assertion propels the victim-blaming assumption that his story could be applicable to anyone in Appalachia. While he acknowledges that a hopeless mindset helps perpetuate the cycle of poverty, he also horrendously understates the systematic resources required to climb out of the poverty hole once a person merely finds the strength to stand up. This reinforces one of the oldest stereotypes about Appalachian people, the “diamond in the rough” – that one somebody raised among nobodies was destined for greatness beyond what their community had to offer. Frankly, the thousands of communities within Appalachia deserve their own stories, too, and this is not one of them.

This wouldn’t be the first time an Appalachian narrative has been exploited by movie crews for a quick, cheap buck, but perhaps it’s Vance’s sentimental disguise that makes this one more potentially hazardous. All controversy aside, early reviews for Howard’s adaptation imply the veteran filmmaker couldn’t quite capture that contentious magic. “Hillbilly Elegy” sits at a slowly decreasing 25 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and a majority of critics have dismissed it for pandering straight to the awards circuit. IndieWire critic David Ehrlich writes, “[Howard] can only do so much to disguise the self-serving nature of a story that was always less about where Vance came from than it was about where he wanted to go.” It’s a nuanced review, but perhaps my favorite comes from Katie Rife at AV Club, who outright dismisses the film as “bootstrapping poverty porn.”

I will reiterate that Appalachia is a region rich in stories and poor in the means to tell them. Sissy Spacek wowed audiences with her portrayal of Loretta Lynn 40 years ago in “The Coal Miner’s Daughter,” winning the academy award for Best Actress through her refined and nuanced performance. John Sayles directed “Matewan” in the same decade, bringing the under-told story of the working class’ violent oppression by crooked coal companies to the big screen, only to garner disappointing box office returns despite critical acclaim. These are the two most notable examples of justice being given to an Appalachian voice through mainstream media, both of which are decades old, and both of which can only dawn the term “mainstream” loosely. 

Widespread or not, Appalachian narratives from both inside and outside the region commonly hinge on the virtue of resilience. Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s “Herion(e),” for example, touches on the gruesome reality of opioid addiction through the idealistic angle that its heroic subjects – a fire chief, a county judge and a social worker – may not be able to end the crisis, but they can at least make a difference through their continued fight against it. Vance also displays determination in his journey to a better life, and determination being an easily reinforceable value, he wins the support of his readers by describing his own resilience. No matter the conviction, though, a narrator who shames “his own” community cannot possibly hope to help it. It would be difficult, for example, for a struggling Appalachian community like Oceana, West Virginia, to attract much-needed economic opportunity if it was, hypothetically, best known as the subject of an opioid documentary with a much more exploitative narrative than one by Sheldon.

So, as we take our seats on the couch with our bellies filled with leftover turkey in the coming week, we bear the responsibility of selecting mindful entertainment, or at least being mindful of the entertainment we select. Will “Hillbilly Elegy” seek to win us over with a compelling, nuanced narrative that appropriately frames the economic status of its setting? Or will we be so mesmerized by Amy Adams yelling over a score by Hans Zimmer that we’ll project ourselves onto Glenn Close’s gun-toting, Trump-voting granny without a second thought? Ultimately, as we come to our own conclusions, we may find ourselves filling our own role within this Appalachian narrative.

Jeffrey Boggess is an upcoming December graduate of the Reed College of Media. An aspiring filmmaker with a passion for Appalachia, Boggess has spent the bulk of his undergraduate education assisting small West Virginia communities through grant projects like BrandJRNY to amplify the voices hidden in the hollows. He’s served on sets behind the camera from feature film productions to simple 30-second ad spot shoots and has encouraged creative students at WVU as the Film Club President for two years. In his free time, Jeffrey cooks, jogs, samples coffee, and writes to his mother back in Hurricane, West Virginia.

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