Hillbilly Agony

I want to take a break from politics for a moment to discuss a cultural controversy that’s largely playing out underneath the continuing headlines about Donald Trump’s challenges to the 2020 election. Let’s talk about Hillbilly Elegy and why critics seem to love to hate a movie and a book that have true and hard things to say about American life.

Readers may remember that I watched the movie before its release—back in October—and talked to J.D. Vance, the author of the Hillbilly Elegy book, and the movie’s director, Ron Howard. Reviews of the movie were embargoed, so I couldn’t really give my opinion of the film during the interview, but I did say that it was “profoundly moving.” And it was.

I didn’t grow up in Appalachia (or in the Ohio town where Vance spent most of his childhood), but I did grow up in small-town Kentucky. I was one of the lucky kids. I had a loving, intact middle-class family, but I was often surrounded by many of the same challenges and pathologies J.D. describes in his book and Howard portrays in the movie.

Through both personal friendships and church ministries I’ve tried desperately to help people close to me (not my family, thankfully) who struggle mightily with drug abuse, and I’ve seen poverty and family dysfunction pass down from parent to child. When I watched the movie I felt like I was walking back into a world that was all too real.

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