I’m not an expert in the manifestly white experience of working-class Appalachian whites, and I don’t pretend to be. Thus, when slews of livid leftists emerged from the dregs of the commentariat to deem Hillbilly Elegy, Netflix’s ambitious fictionalization of the best-selling memoir, “poverty porn,” I won’t jump to impugn such ill-tempered motives, but the Maoist harmony of the media chorus does point to two undeniable facts. First, that the same media that celebrated the narratively incoherent Oscar bait The Shape of Water (not coincidentally written by the same author of Elegy‘s screenplay) and bent over backwards to defend Cuties, the French film featuring prepubescent children pantomiming oral sex and doggy style to titillate adult perverts, erupted in the same sort of unison to excoriate the largely innocuous Elegy. Second, that the story’s author, attorney and venture capitalist J.D. Vance, is a real person who actually exists.
For the unacquainted, Vance, an elder but still slightly boyish millennial, has become something of a soothsayer on the right side of the aisle, penning his memoir of the demographic that arguably delivered President Trump his victory long before Trump even won the 2016 Republican primary. In the great libertarian debate of the GOP’s post-Trump future, Vance has proven one of the more eloquent and nuanced champions of the more nationalist and natalist end of the conservative spectrum. If the Left wanted an effective internal agent against the corporatist and laissez-faire orthodoxy of the GOP, they couldn’t find one better than either Vance or his memoir.
And yet, Vance’s story has come under fire once again.
Netflix took a high-risk, high-reward gamble on Elegy, banking on the universal (outside of the cesspool that is Twitter) appeal of the story and leading ladies Glenn Close and Amy Adams to earn the streaming service its first-ever victory for the Academy Award for best actress. (Both Close and Adams are long overdue for their turn at the grandest Oscar based on every objective measure.)
The uproar over the film likely won’t jeopardize those odds, as cash and curried favor buy more in Tinsel Town than Twitter tirades, but it is telling. It was misguided right-wing, not left-wing, ire aimed at the film The Hunt, with expertly lampooned the illiberal Left, and plenty of highbrow films depicting coastal elite liberalism’s failure of family (the consequences of divorce, abortion, etc.) and finance (read: every film about the financial crisis) went unperturbed by partisans. But the one film, again, based on the real story of a dirt poor Ohioan with a grueling, first-person testimony of the horrors of our nation’s triple crises of the opioid epidemic, those left behind by capitalism’s economic destruction, and violence primarily against women, that had the audacity to tell a story by a poor person is derided by critics hammering away at their MacBooks in Bed Stuy lofts.
Just consider Vox, which not only issued a one-star review of the film while deriding its source material for “eliding the racist roots of antipathy toward Barack Obama,” but also published a subsequent retrospective asking why the film full of “quixotic nothingness” feels so “inauthentic and performative” and why the fictionalized Vance feels so “self-righteously smug” and “narcissistic.”
“J.D. is easily the most loathsome protagonist since Holden Caulfield,” Vox’s Aja Romano writes. “J.D. is self-righteously smug at everyone around him. He’s smug about his mother’s ongoing battle with her opioid addiction. He’s smug about his grandmother’s bad parenting and his sister’s life choices. He’s smug about how drugs are bad for you, right up until he inexplicably about-faces and starts doing pot, smoking, and committing small felonies with his group of low-life friends — except then he’s smug about that, too.”
But that’s a character judgment. The more baffling assessment is this continuous assertion that Vance, regardless of his flaws, perceived or real, fabricated the “hillbilly experience.”
In one portion of the diatribe, echoing the throngs of critics lambasting the film, Romano arguing that we know Vance wasn’t really poor because actual paupers know how much money is in their bank accounts. In another telling segment, Romano writes, “Why did this movie seem to take place in a world without any type of child welfare services — or, for that matter, so little medical care? For the record, 50 plus rural counties across both Kentucky and Ohio have been expanding their opioid rehab centers and counseling programs, with one project specifically targeting Appalachia — meaning that despite what Hillbilly Elegy would have you believe, people in Appalachia can probably find rehab assistance near them — and probably would have had some sort of access in 2007, when the later part of Hillbilly Elegy is set.”
Someone has zero grasp on the reality of America’s rural poor here, and it’s certainly not Vance.
All of which is to say that the barrage of vitriol levied against the entirely apolitical Hillbilly Elegy mirrors the right-wing neoliberal loathing of Vance’s politics. “How could you claim a junkie mom could get away with letting her kid fall through the cracks of social services???” mimics the delusional logic of the right-wing McKinsey class asking how small businesses obliterated by unfettered trade with China and declining birth rates obliterating our entitlement solvency can have the audacity to claim our capitalist system is less than perfect.
Hillbilly Elegy is not a perfect movie, and in a vacuum, idealistic libertarians wouldn’t consider Vance a promising prophet of any sort. But the backlash to the film, and more specifically, how it illustrates the intellectual and moral rot of our ruling class, just goes to show how vital his story and message will be for conservatism in the years to come.