The Muddled Message of 'Hillbilly Elegy'
The film rings true for many who have dealt with poverty and addiction, but it doesn’t quite feel comfortable in its milieu.
The protagonist of the 1941 comedy Sullivan’s Travels is an earnest comedy director named John L. Sullivan. One day, Sullivan announces that he’s going to make a socially important film. It will be a film that has Something to Say, a meditation on labor and capital and dignity!
“But with a little sex?” his producer urges.
“A little,” Sullivan concedes, adding primly, “but I don’t want to stress it.”
But Sullivan has a problem. He lives in a mansion in Beverly Hills and doesn’t have the remotest idea what “hard luck” is. Guilt-stricken at his lack of victimhood, Sully dons a hokey “hobo” costume and hits the road with nothing but his wits, a small bundle of provisions, and the ability to—at any time—call on his network of friends to prevent him from suffering any real harm. Still wrapped in his invisible privileges, he declares, “I’m not coming back until I know what real trouble is.”
I couldn’t help but think of the bleeding-heart do-gooder Sullivan as I watched Ron Howard’s Important Social Drama, Hillbilly Elegy. The movie isn’t unlikable, but it’s trying so hard to make a statement—while being hesitant to swing for the fences and having no authentic grounding in the culture it portrays—that it comes off as unconvincing and muddled. It comes off … well, like a Hollywood director off on a poverty tourism road trip—simultaneously earnest, well-meaning, and kind of phony.
Hillbilly Elegy follows the coming-of-age story of J.D. Vance (Owen Asztalos and Gabriel Basso), a young man living with his single mother, Beverly (Amy Adams), in Ohio. While Beverly struggles with addiction and mood swings, the young J.D. finds comfort and protection with his extended family, particularly his Kentucky-born Mamaw, played by a cigarette-chomping, fiercely eccentric Glenn Close.
Howard’s film re-creates many of the book’s more exaggerated moments and slices the story up into separate timelines, but in the process, hopelessly muddles character arcs and struggles to find a settled pace. A key part of good direction is to ensure the audience exits a scene knowing and feeling the right thing (you can see how Hitchcock does that here). Throughout Hillbilly Elegy I floated from one scene to the next without knowing where the momentum was meant to take me. Even if I enjoyed it in the moment, I knew that I wouldn’t recall the story structure even 15 minutes after the film ended.
With some exceptions—I found Glenn Close’s Mamaw to actually be a pretty accurate evocation of a certain sort of exaggerated Appalachian type—the film doesn’t quite feel comfortable in its milieu. Hans Zimmer’s score sounds like...well, Hans Zimmer trying to sound Appalachian.
The film’s saving grace is that many of the situations—lifted directly from the book—do ring true. This is why many viewers have found the film moving, because it recalls their own fractured families, beset by addiction, crushed by smallness of a hometown without opportunities. Elsewhere in the digital pages of The Dispatch, David French noted that many reviews of the film did not seem able to separate its relative merits from J.D. Vance’s politics. And while Hillbilly Elegy is not a great movie, French is right that much of the backlash to the film has been unfairly vicious. By contrast, I suspect many viewers—especially Appalachians—are just happy to see middle Americans on screen, portrayed without condescension.
But there have been better portrayals of Appalachians before—recently even—that existed in good films. The ironic thing is, though, that they weren’t recognized as such because they were comedies.
Which brings us to another reason that Sullivan’s Travels sheds some light on Hillbilly Elegy: it shows the value of having a sense of humor when delivering grim social commentary. It may seem strange, but one thing that would have greatly enhanced the value of Hillbilly Elegy is if it had been a lot funnier than it is.
Self-awareness is key. Sullivan’s Travels approaches its subject with an awareness of its own limitations as a Hollywood production. Poor Sullivan is Hollywood poking fun at its own pretensions. In a clever piece of casting, writer-director Preston Sturges cast Joel McCrea as Sullivan. McCrea was a lanky everyman who exudes earnest good will, so we laugh with him instead of at him. Every five minutes on his sociological expedition Sully finds himself in another scrape, be it accidentally becoming a “kept man” and having to shimmy down a knotted bedsheet to escape (only to lose his grip and plunge into a conveniently placed water barrel) or asking with perfectly innocent idiocy two hobos’ how they “feel about the labor situation.”
A key lesson that the film teaches is that comedy usually delights ordinary audiences even more than ponderous message pictures—but the film also implicitly makes the case that comedy can sometimes do a better job of delivering a message than Important Social Dramas because it can take itself lightly. The medium was the message—Sullivan’s Travels is as funny as it is insightful.
As Zena Hitz noted in a podcast on the film, “There’s something contemplative about comedy. It’s a way in which we can step back from something and see it for what it really is….It’s part of the value of comedy that it permits self-knowledge, self-awareness, and a kind of contemplative musing on the way things are.”
This all comes home in the third act, when Sullivan finally, in an inspired twist of fate, experiences some real suffering. He’s stripped of his identity and made powerless—a condition which allows him to encounter grace. This, in turn, helps him become aware, finally, of his own privilege and class myopia. It’s an extraordinary sequence which does the very thing which the film seems to claim is impossible: it portrays poverty, gives a voice to the voiceless, and creates a scene of remarkable artistry and emotional power, skating close to didacticism but staying clear.
This sequence displays a narrative confidence and insight which eludes Hillbilly Elegy. And a big part of that is because the latter film won’t allow itself to be funny. Matt Zoller Seitz identified this too:
Howard and company are tourists here...so it's understandable that the movie wouldn't have the nerve to put its foot down on the tonal accelerator and veer into black comedy and surrealism (even though the movie occasionally cries out for that approach—particularly in a flashback where young Mamaw sets her abusive drunk husband on fire in front of a Christmas tree while "O Holy Night" plays on a radio).
The thing about hillbilly culture, though, is that it’s hilarious. I’d know. I grew up in the mountains of Virginia, in a town of about 1,400 people. My mamaw never shot anyone, but she was once briefly held hostage by a notorious murderer named Lem Tuggle. My great-great uncle would regale us with stories of the one great-aunt who (allegedly) sold her soul to the devil or the time that he drove from Germany to Switzerland and tried, without speaking a word of French, to order fried chicken at a local hotel.
Like Vance, I left hillbilly culture for the Big City, but my twang is noticeable enough that I’m regularly asked, “Wait...where is that accent from?” And one thing I’ve noticed: A hillbilly background is an excellent way to establish a dramatic backstory and make people laugh.
This is why the best movies about southerners are those that let them be absurd, for the south’s darkness and its absurdity go hand in hand. Consider O Brother Where Art Thou (which is incidentally named after a joke book title in, you guessed it, Sullivan’s Travels) a comedy that does two things extremely well: portray smart Southerners and popularize Southern music. As quirky and odd as it is, its surrealism captures something authentic about the crazy south and inspires outsiders to love it as well.
To that end, another recent film which does an excellent job of portraying Appalachians is Logan Lucky, a Steven Soderbergh flick which is basically Oceans 11: Redneck Edition. It’s a winsome and sharp caper movie in which a pair of West Virginian brothers pull off a heist at a NASCAR race. (The movie is careful to explain that the insurance will cover the theft, so they’re not really hurting that honored Southern institution.) The film is pitch perfect in its portrayal of a particular hillbilly type which I know: a savvy, whip-smart blue collar Appalachian that is brilliant with creative problem solving ... all the skills of A.J. Raffles, in other words, but none of the social power.
The best thing about these films is that they made me feel proud of my background, not tragic or embarrassed. After all, a key part of being a hillbilly is about believing that nobody outside of Appalachia cares much about us except as a joke. Is that true? Not exactly, but it’s a key tenet of hillbilly doctrine. If there’s one thing Appalachians know in our bones, it’s that the deck is stacked against us—a belief that has often been reinforced by prominent on-screen representations of us like in Deliverance and the Beverly Hillbillies.
But the main thing that these ennobling comedies get that Hillbilly Elegy does not is that an essential part of being a hillbilly is being proud of where you come from. I don’t have any use for Appalachians that flee and try to iron out their country drawl. My redneck individualism and stubbornness has motivated me to try and renovate the backyard of my Brooklyn apartment building during COVID, a quixotic task given the sheer amount of infectious weeds and broken bottles riddling the soil. But if my ancestors could farm in the hollows (pronounced hollers, of course), growing some tomatoes in Brooklyn is surely not beyond my ability.
Hillbilly Elegy is good hearted, but with a lighter touch, and some self-awareness, it could have done more than just create empathy for hillbillies—it could have ennobled us as well. As Sullivan concludes, “There's a lot to be said for making people laugh.”