His aim wasn’t only to recount his mother’s struggles with addiction and celebrate his grandmother’s grit. “Hillbilly Elegy,” published in June of 2016, attracted an extra measure of attention (and controversy) after Donald Trump’s election. It seemed to offer a firsthand report, both personal and analytical, on the condition of the white American working class.
And while the book didn’t really explain the election — Vance is reticent about his family’s voting habits and ideological tendencies — it did venture a hypothesis about how that family and others like it encountered such persistent household dysfunction and economic distress. His answer wasn’t political or economic, but cultural.
He suggests that the same traits that make his people distinctive — suspicion of outsiders, resistance to authority, devotion to kin, eagerness to fight — make it hard for them to thrive in modern American society. Essentially, “Hillbilly Elegy” updates the old “culture of poverty” thesis associated with the anthropologist Oscar Lewis’s research on Mexican peasants (and later with Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s ideas about Black Americans) and applies it to disadvantaged white communities.
Howard and Taylor mostly sidestep this argument, which has been widely criticized. They focus on the characters and their predicaments, and on themes that are likely to be familiar and accessible to a broad range of viewers. The film is a chronicle of addiction entwined with a bootstrapper’s tale — Bev’s story and J.D.’s, with Mamaw as the link between them.
But it sacrifices the intimacy, and the specificity, of those stories by pretending to link them to something bigger without providing a coherent sense of what that something might be. The Vances are presented as a representative family, but what exactly do they represent? A class? A culture? A place? A history? The louder they yell, the less you understand — about them or the world they inhabit.
The strange stew of melodrama, didacticism and inadvertent camp that Howard serves up isn’t the result of a failure of taste or sensitivity. If anything, “Hillbilly Elegy” is too tasteful, too sensitive for its own good, studiously unwilling to be as wild or provocative as its characters. Such tact is in keeping with the moral of its story, which is that success in America means growing up to be less interesting than your parents or grandparents. The best thing I can say about this movie is also the most damning, given Mamaw’s proud indifference to anyone’s good opinion of her. It’s respectable.
Rated R. Fussing, fighting, cussing, smoking. Running time: 1 hour 56 minutes. Watch on Netflix.