Why Critics Are Wrong About Hillbilly Elegy


Monday, February 22, 2021

Hillbilly Elegy, the film adaptation of J.D. Vance’s bestselling memoir, was recently released on Netflix and in select theaters, and, according to the critics, it’s not worth a moment of your time.

David Sims of The Atlantic gives it the distinction of one of the worst movies of the year. Sims rips Hillbilly Elegy for what he sees as a stereotypical narrative about overcoming adversity. Jacobin Magazine’s film critic, Eileen Jones, similarly detests what she considers to be the film’s glorification of American meritocracy. Allissa Wilkinson, Vox’s film critic, knocks the film for not mentioning the conservative sentiments expressed in Vance expressed in the original. 

This apparently horrendous film, directed by Ron Howard, illustrates Vance’s upbringing in small-town Ohio. It tells the story of Vance’s grandmother, who dedicated the latter years of her life to shepherding her grandson through his adolescence. The film cuts back and forth between stories of Vance’s childhood and his continued struggles to overcome the circumstances of his birth as he attends Yale Law School.

The cast is strong. Amy Adams plays Vance’s mother, Beverly. Adams successfully reflects the struggle of having an addict in the family. Her character transitions seamlessly from being a caring mother to an erratic abuser who torments her family. Nevertheless, Adams forces viewers to root for her character, just as her family does, regardless of the pain she causes. 

Glen Close portrays Vance’s grandmother, who is an especially endearing figure. Vance’s grandmother is the individual holding this troubled family together through all their strife. Close does well to represent the hillbilly matriarch that Vance describes in his memoir. The everyday hero who takes it upon herself to raise her floundering grandson, guiding him from the rust belt to the Ivy League. 

Hillbilly Elegy tells the powerful story of a young man, who was uplifted by his family, overcame significant obstacles, and was able to pursue his version of the American dream. Granted, the adage about the book always being better than the movie applies to Hillbilly Elegy; Vance’s reflections about his upbringing and the community around him are valuable and difficult to replicate on screen. However, the critique that the film is a simplistic rag to riches story is odd considering that it literally mirrors the true story of Vance’s life.

Fortunately, it seems that movie watchers are not deterred by bad reviews. Hillbilly Elegy’s Rotten Tomatoes score shows a vast divide between the critics, who gave the film a 26 percent, and the general public, who rated it 85 percent. It’s clear that the critical reviews of the Hillbilly Elegy struggle to see past something most viewers do not: the politics surrounding it. Of course, the film itself is not remarkably political in any way, but the book does have political undertones. J.D. Vance is a conservative, and when his memoir was originally published in 2016, it was seen as a guide to understanding the white working-class communities that eventually propelled Donald Trump into office. Although the film is understandably divorced from Vance’s political beliefs, critics struggle to avoid viewing the film through the lens of politics. 

In an interview with CBS, Ron Howard expressed his dismay at those who judge Hillbilly Elegy based on “political thematics… that aren’t front and center in this story.” Howard continued by noting that he hopes his film can simply serve as a bridge to understanding a unique group of people, which is certainly a noble purpose.

Hillbilly Elegy has dared to tell the story of working-class communities in the rust belt, a group all too often neglected by elite media, and the film has been released at a pertinent time. As the campaign season ends, Americans should be looking for ways to better understand their fellow countrymen, especially those with whom they disagree. Americans who are not familiar with the industrial Midwest should leap at the opportunity to understand the remarkable story of J.D. Vance and his family, regardless of what elite critics say.


Ben Snead lives in Portland, Oregon, and is pursuing an undergraduate degree in Political Science at the University of Oregon's Clark Honors College. During his free time, Ben enjoys going on hikes and road trips in the Pacific Northwest.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.

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About Ben Snead

Ben Snead lives in Portland, Oregon, and is pursuing an undergraduate degree in Political Science at the University of Oregon's Clark Honors College. During his free time, Ben enjoys going on hikes and road trips in the Pacific Northwest.

ben.snead on Instagram @ben.snead

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