If you search for Hillbilly Elegy on the internet, you’ll find many critics with negative things to say about the film that is currently trending on Netflix. J.D. Vance is the author of the book and it’s his story that Vanessa Taylor turned into a screenplay for Ron Howard to direct. It’s basically the story of a young man who is graduating from Yale, but he’s called back to Middletown, Ohio to deal with a crisis that is plaguing his family.
Amy Adams plays his mother who was a nurse at one time but has allowed addiction to take over her life. Glenn Close plays the “mawmaw” who takes on the responsibility of raising J.D. while his sister is doing a fine job raising herself. It’s the story of one Appalachian family, but that’s where it tends to be misleading.
Had J.D. Vance simply named it The Story of J.D. Vance, he wouldn’t be getting as much criticism as he is. That would be the honest way of titling a person’s story with personal tragedy and no one would have one bad thing to say about it. But he named it Hillbilly Elegy, which doesn’t sit too well with everyone who lives along the Appalachian Mountains that stretch from Alabama on up into Canada. That’s a lot of ground and a lot of people to cover. One book, one man’s story could never depict what life is like for all those people living in every small town along the way.
Therein lies the crux. I happened to like the story. It’s as honest as it gets and it’s definitely relatable to millions of people. But it hardly tells the Hillbilly story. And what does “elegy” pretend to portray? The word “elegy” connotes a lament of the dead. What is being lamented here? Are the hillbillies dead? Is their lifestyle dead? Or is a Hillbilly lamenting a death of some sort?
That’s why people like Aunt Ruth in Cassie Armstrong’s article “Hillbilly Elegy Doesn’t Reflect the Appalachia I Know” published in The Atlantic probably don’t even want to watch it. The title is off-putting and it doesn’t speak to them. It doesn’t tell their specific story. That’s how hard it is to nail down one particular story of the people of Appalachia.
Now, J.D. Vance is an intelligent man. I’m sure a great deal of thought went into coming up with the title. And another thing I know about books and film is even bad criticism is good criticism. The more negative things people have to say about the story, the more people want to watch it and find out what it’s all about. When you read the bad reviews, you won’t find anyone putting down the acting or the filming. They’re simply saying it doesn’t speak to all people of Appalachia. That to me is a good review even if there is negativity toward it.
They’re not saying, “Look at this hillbilly! Can’t even spell Appalachia.” They’re not saying the story isn’t told well or that it’s not believable. Technically, I haven’t heard one bad thing yet about the story itself. After all, it’s true. No one can take that away from J.D. Vance.
But what I have heard is that there are people who have different stories of their own to tell. Not everyone wants to “get out” of Appalachia. They’re happy with their lives. They know the hardships others have had to face, but not everyone has had to face them. J.D. Vance’s sister for one is portrayed in her later years as a happily married woman who works in a shoe store. She’s content. She didn’t “get out” and go to Yale. She forged her own life right there in Middletown, Ohio.
J.D. Vance himself didn’t necessarily “get out” of Appalachia. He simply joined the Marine Corps and followed that up with a solid education before returning to Ohio where his wife and kids now live. It’s a story he shares with millions upon millions of kids who grew up along those same mountains.
I, myself, can relate to that. I grew up between Maryland and Virginia, also states along the Appalachian Mountain system. I graduated high school, went into the Marine Corps, and followed that up with a solid education that ended with me getting a degree from Frostburg State University. My book A River in the Ocean is set in Fredericksburg, Virginia and I candidly reference what life is like there along the beautiful Rappahannock River. My most recent book The Deeper Dark purposely has the protagonist visiting Fredericksburg for that very same reason.
We all have our own stories to tell and J.D. Vance tells a mainly heartbreaking one with the twist that he was able to make it through his tough childhood and graduate from Yale. Good for him! That’s not everyone’s story, but it’s his. Hillbilly Elegy just doesn’t encapsulate everything the title promises. So be it. People are still watching it!