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Criticism for the Sake of It

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books and culture

Criticism for the Sake of It

The film adaptation of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is far better than the politicized reviews suggest. December 10, 2020
Arts and Culture
Politics and law

One Saturday afternoon this summer, following a hike in northeastern Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill County, my father and I stopped in Heckscherville, known locally as the Irish Valley, where my family had once made an annual pilgrimage. For many years, the remote village hosted a widely attended Irish festival, where descendants of the region’s immigrant coal miners celebrated their heritage, raised money for the local fire company, ate ethnic food, drank Yuengling beer, and sat in lawn chairs as “The Irish Lads” played ballads.

It was a weekend filled with joy, but also melancholy and nostalgia. Amid the Irish flags and tributes to anthracite coal, we recalled our grandfathers and great-grandfathers, who arrived from Mayo, Kilkenny, or Donegal, worked in the mines, and built and maintained Catholic parishes. In Schuylkill’s coal “patch” towns, pride, faith, and reciprocity eased endemic poverty. In Heckscherville, the annual Irish Weekend was a time for natives to honor St. Kieran’s, the local parish established in 1858 by Bishop John Neumann, a canonized saint. But the church closed in 2008, leading to the demise of the annual festival, which had brought vitality to a struggling community.

And so, a decade later, my father and I stood before that empty, vandalized structure, its windows smashed and its interior stripped of ornamentation. We walked around the abandoned complex, standing atop a hill where parish graves face the last remnants of the mining industry. A monument reads: “In honor of the men, women, and miners of the Irish Valley who built St. Kieran’s . . . with their hands, sanctified it with their prayers and mourned its loss with their tears.”

We left the property, driving past Donald Trump signs set before humble homes on scarred land—this in a county where Trump won nearly 70 percent of the vote in 2016 and repeated that margin this past November.

Following the 2016 election, reporters and pundits made anthropological journeys to places like the anthracite coal region, seeking to understand working-class support for Trump. At times, their dispatches were sympathetic. During their travels to Schuylkill and elsewhere, J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy—ascending the New York Times’s bestseller list that summer—often served as a field guide to understanding these forgotten voters. Of course, this voting bloc isn’t monolithic. The Irish and Lithuanian Catholics of northern Schuylkill, for instance, had a different cultural experience than the Scots-Irish Protestants of Kentucky’s hill country, though they shared enthusiasm for Trump. Vance’s memoir—a reminiscence of a complex upbringing—helped explain this support.

Now, following Trump’s election defeat, Hillbilly Elegy has lost its luster among those commentators who praised it four years ago. Ron Howard’s film adaptation of the book, released on Netflix last month, has helped crystalize this change of heart. Panning the film has become its own form of group think to express resentment of Trump voters.

But a notable gap exists between the film’s reception among critics and among general viewers. Hillbilly Elegy remains one of the most watched movies on Netflix—and deservedly so. Devoid of a political agenda, the film explores cultural pride, family dysfunction, and personal responsibility through the lens of Vance’s childhood and young professional life. It tells how a child of Appalachian heritage, through luck and hard work, overcame adversity and ultimately excelled as a Yale law student despite an imperfect, if not traumatic, past. At times, the film is disjointed; its flashbacks might confuse those unfamiliar with the book. Overall, though, it’s an emotionally powerful film.

Hillbilly Elegy explores contemporary social decay, particularly an opioid crisis dating to the 1990s, when Vance was a child. The epidemic, intensified by Purdue Pharma’s release of OxyContin in 1995, profoundly affected family dynamics in communities like Ohio’s Middletown, where he grew up. Indeed, between 1970 and 2012—a year before Vance received his Yale law degree—the percentage of children living in grandparent-headed households doubled to 6 percent. In Montgomery County, just north of Middletown, approximately 5,575 grandparents were raising grandchildren in 2016.

Vance’s Mamaw, played by Glenn Close in a commanding performance, was among those grandparents long before the trend received national attention. His mother, portrayed by Amy Adams, grappled with a drug addiction that worsened with time. In one potent scene, Mamaw, increasingly frail and with limited financial means, asks her grandson, whom she’s now raising, if he’ll help her; he’s lounging on the couch, playing with a Nintendo Gameboy. A knock is heard at the front door, and Mamaw greets a Meals-on-Wheels volunteer, who hands her a packaged dinner. “This isn’t enough,” she says. “I told ‘em I got my grandson now . . . I’m spread a little thin right now. I couldn’t buy my pills this month.” But the volunteer only has one meal, and so he hands her fruit and a bag of chips after her gentle persistence. Young Vance witnesses the exchange. Mamaw gives him most of the meal. “Go ahead. Eat,” she tells her grandson, who, at the kitchen table, resolves to begin helping around the house, working hard in school, and taking responsibility.

The scene will likely resonate with many working- and middle-class viewers, but the film won’t win over critics in a post-Trump landscape.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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