An early scene in Ron Howard’s retelling of JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy places the young Vance at a high-stakes dinner during interview week. Around a table with key law firm partners, applicants are sharing their backgrounds. The conversation turns to Vance. As he describes in the most delicate possible terms his path from Ohio through Iraq to Yale, forks drop. Eyes look away, unsure whether to probe for more details or hope for a change of subject.
I’ve been at that table. The scene was a gut churning, unwelcome reminder – climb any distance above your raisin’ in the land of the American Dream and the air quickly chills and thins. You discover how few will welcome your disruptive ambitions, either in the home you left or in the places you aspire to reach. Sustaining that rise can mean closing down into a defensive, often suspicious crouch. You reveal as little as possible of a background that can turn you into a circus sideshow, a pariah or a kind of mascot.
Thanks to the powerful role played by race, Americans believe they live in a classless society, leaving us largely insensitive to the damage of class division. For a working-class kid trying to climb, some of the most hazardous and isolating moments come after you’ve left. These are the brief moments where Hillbilly Elegy shines, exposing our class hypocrisy, peeling back the curtain on the obstacles to social mobility in America. Those moments are brief, overwhelmed by what felt like hours of maudlin manipulation. Delivered over and over again, stripped of all nuance, self-awareness or humor, this endless parade of That Very Special Scene loses its punch, dragging the story into an incoherent puddle.
Howard stripped so much of the commentary from Vance’s original material to make the film palatable that even with every character acting more or less as a narrator, practically blurting out “This is the part where I talk about this important thing” you can’t tell where this rambling white trash This is Us is trying to go. As a series of short scenes addressing the rarely depicted experiences of working-class people trying to climb, the film was a wrenching emotional experience. But those moments are poorly connected, aimless and without purpose like a series of music videos. As a film, Hillbilly Elegy is schlocky melodrama.
Fiction is supposed to “show, don’t tell,” but Hillbilly Elegy can’t risk letting its few messages be lost in the telling. Vance’s character grandstands over the evils of marijuana, exclaiming in one scene that “marijuana is a gateway drug!” As his grandfather’s body is carried through town toward the cemetery and people stop and remove their hats in homage. Howard can’t let the moment carry itself. Glenn Close, as the grizzled Mamaw has to take the mic from the narrator, explaining, “We’re hill people, we respect the dead.”
The film is humorless, devoid of subtlety, self-awareness or nuance, powered by a script typed out with a hammer and emotionally manipulative to the margins of abuse. Hillbilly Elegy is as artistically interesting as an after school special, introducing the audience to the virtues of doing your homework and saying “no” to drugs. When you go back and pair the film with the uglier elements of Vance’s memoir, elements Howard overlooked, you start to wonder if Howard meant this as satire.
What is Hillbilly Elegy, the film, about? It’s hard to tell. Since Howard protected the author from the rage which would have followed if he’d incorporated Vance’s original ideas about the poor moral character of the poor, the overarching point fades. You’re left with a bunch of individual tableaus exploring the evils of drink or drugs or stealing or something. Work hard, wash your dishes, and you’ll go to Yale? How does someone produce such a sanctimonious, preachy film and still lose the point?
Hillbilly Elegy, the original memoir, is a gratingly unintentional story about the dangers of survivorship bias. Survivorship bias is the logical error of concentrating on the people or things that made it past some selection process and overlooking those that did not, typically because of their lack of visibility. Imagine a soldier on a D-Day. His landing craft is hit by an artillery shell. It kills everyone on board while throwing him onto the beach where he lands alive and still able to fight. That soldier later pens a memoir attributing his survival to his superior military prowess, his religious faith, God’s favor, Mama’s prayers, or whatever. In fact, his survival was a statistical accident, but that cruel reality is just too horrifying to confront. That soldier is JD Vance, and that memoir is Hillbilly Elegy.
Howard mercifully spared Vance this honest treatment. It’s a familiar trap for a working-class kid who made his way elsewhere. Once you’re out, it’s tempting to imagine that your life is better than the lives of people you grew up with because you’re better than they are. Perhaps the most prominent case study is Trump’s favorite black guy, Ben Carson. Confronting that fallacy would have made a more interesting memoir and a piercing look at social class, but Vance didn’t give us that material and Howard declined to fill it in, at least not fully. At several points Howard drops the fact that Vance’s mother was the salutatorian of her high school class, a detail that might have opened an interesting window, but that part of the story never develops.
His memoir attributes Vance’s climb out of poverty to his Mamaw’s stubborn discipline and his personal choices to avoid the pitfalls of the Pilgrim’s Progress. Naturally, all of these things were important, but none of them were enough to avoid that metaphorical artillery shell. Both the poverty in which he began and the obstacles to his climb were thrown up by a civilization which has devolved into one of the world’s most hostile environments for social mobility. That dominant reality is conveniently ignored in favor of producing Rocky for nerds.
What’s missing from Hillbilly Elegy, the crucial scene that might have broken the story open into something more profound and meaningful, would have been a contrast between the “values of meritocratic success” which Vance embraced and the values common among the wealthier kids who reached similar goals in a walk. Presumably, we’re supposed to conclude that the kids who “made it,” those smiling white faces around Vance at the Yale Law School dinner, embodied all those wholesome, “say no to drugs” values missing from reprobate hillbilly life. In the real world, the brain-dead Trump kids went to Harvard. George Bush Jr. went to Yale. We don’t get a picture of the personal choices that lead affluent white kids to comfy private schools because that would have wrecked the narrative.
He doles out scene after scene of poors being poors, lounging on the porch, failing to do the dishes with a smile, smoking, and indulging in the evils of drugs and sex. We’re supposed to conclude that these personal moral failings explain their poverty. Vance didn’t go off to a fancy undergraduate college full of wealthy white kids and it shows. If he had, he would have witnessed the bizarre scenes I faced, as the “culture of poverty” was acted out by the wealthy kids around me absent any of the supposedly inevitable consequences.
Where I came from there was no room for error. Kids who “fell into drugs” faded away. We were led to believe that this was morality and consequences at work, the machinery of meritocracy. Drinking, failing to do schoolwork, or lingering in that first-floor boys’ room that had become an open-air drug market was a gateway to annihilation. Get pregnant, or get someone pregnant, and you’re pretty much finished. Then I went to college and discovered a whole new set of rules.
Turns out the path to a fancy private college was paved with drugs, drinking, risky sex and broad immunity to the consequences of minor crimes. All the habits I thought were necessary for success, simply weren’t. Naturally, strong study habits and good moral character were helpful, but they weren’t essential. The winning combination was family money, modest talent, and the ability to master a few academic tasks.
The Hillbilly Elegy path to success is a lie. It only applies to at lower incomes, where every day is a tightrope walk and any error or misfortune could derail your ambitions. It is a persistent myth that poor families are more dogged by domestic instability, substance abuse and general dysfunction. Vance feeds that myth to make his success emblematic of his superior character. Wealthier young people engage in the same behaviors and make the same choices as the immoral poor in Hillbilly Elegy, it just doesn’t matter. Cushioned by money and family influence the consequences simply aren’t as meaningful. Money buys room to survive your mistakes. That’s the truth Vance’s story overlooks to preserve his access to a Republican political career.
His isn’t a story of personal character and talent clearing the way to American Success. For working class kids, studying hard, learning good habits and all the other youth minister admonishments merely buy a lottery ticket. Vance is a statistical anomaly. A very small percentage of poor children in America get into Yale. It has be somebody. In this case it was him. In true American fashion he turned his lucky break into a one-man industry. As happens in the reality entertainment complex, that celebrity could be fleeting and might be costly.
If Vance had waited a couple of decades to write his story, we might have gotten something with a bit more wisdom and nuance. It probably wouldn’t have sold many copies and we wouldn’t have read it, like Christian Cooper’s searing, revelatory, largely unread account of his legacy of poverty. Cooper’s account was well-considered, insightful, and as one would expect from an honest account of survival, a bit harrowing. Poor material for a Lifetime movie. Vance doesn’t compromise the entertainment value of his experience by lingering over complexities. His story isn’t over.
Vance has decided to turn the “platform” of his book into a venture capital business he’s located in Ohio. Beyond that, he has his eye on Republican politics. Memoir is a dangerous pursuit. Converting memoir into a business is thoroughly unwise. His story probably has more to teach us yet.
Making a venture capital fund work in a place where venture capital works is challenging. Doing it in a place where venture has never worked before is going to be dicey. Doing all this while raising capital on the platform of fame and politics, seems like the opening of an American tragedy.
When a venture capital fund has a bad year there are a lot of angry phone calls. When a venture capitalist with a Ron Howard biopic has a bad year, it becomes a story in People Magazine. A venture capital investor does not want to be in People magazine.
He could still succeed. Anything can happen. But with these career moves Vance is juggling daggers, balanced atop a stack of basketballs. He may have been wise to cash in on his biography before all the interesting parts happened. There’s still time for this Horatio Alger to become another Elmer Gantry.
A few notes.
If you’re looking for a story about poverty in America, the legacy of the Scots-Irish, or the cultures of our “hill people” there are much better options than Hillbilly Elegy. The film produced from Daniel Woodrell’s searing novel, Winter’s Bone, is a brilliant exploration of America’s hill cultures, and still Jennifer Lawrence’s finest performance. Marshall Mathers’ 8 Mile is an unflinching look at poverty in Detroit. Hell or High Water is an outstanding depiction of white working class life after the financial crash. And Mississippi Damned may be the best story of “the culture of poverty” and barriers to social mobility you’ll find anywhere. Most people haven’t heard of them because they are excellent and uncomfortable, not compromising the complexity of their story to manufacture a cartoon hero.
In non-fiction, Keri Leigh Merritt’s Masterless Men is a fantastic exploration of the lives of landless or poor whites in the Antebellum South, a foundation for the narratives of whiteness and poverty that would follow. Nancy Isenburg’s White Trash: The 400 Year Untold Story of Class in America is another great place to start. And Daniel Woodrell’s novels of Ozark life are a powerful fictional introduction to rural poverty.