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The Hillbilly Elegy Trailer Reaction
The last time I was home, my mom and I were drinking boxed wine at the kitchen island. I prefer to drink mine out of a Mason jar. It fits more. She has a copper plated stemless glass she prefers. Catching up on work and recounting how long it had been since my last visit (too long), she asked me, a bit bluntly thanks to the Moscato, “Are you ever embarrassed of us back in New York?” It broke my heart, because even though I got what she was getting at, the answer has always been a firm no. Our house is humble. Neither of my parents are college educated, and the freezer on our back porch is filled with meat you can’t buy at Kroger. It’s not a world a lot of people get, and that makes it so easy to turn into a cartoon. I knew that she asked me that because to a big chunk of America, my lot of people are seen as dumb or backward. Embarrassing. That sentiment doesn’t just appear out of nowhere.
It’s why I felt unsettled on Wednesday morning, when the long-awaited trailer for Netflix’s Hillbilly Elegy dropped online. The film, adapted from J.D. Vance’s New York Times best-selling memoir, is directed by Ron Howard and written by Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water, Game of Thrones). It stars Glenn Close and Amy Adams. At first glance, it appears to be real mad lib of an Oscar-bait film. Set in the town of Middletown, Ohio, the Appalachian narrative feels, at first, like a unique one worth celebrating. But after watching the trailer, having already read the book, it’s obvious that, much like the source material itself, this could end up another portrait of an outsider’s Appalachia: a marketable caricature of a proud community of people. An embarrassment worth paying attention to.
The story follows Vance’s upbringing—which is without doubt a compelling story of a young man born into poverty and drug abuse who eventually enlists in the Marines, attends the Ohio State University, then later, Yale Law School. The story focuses primarily on the matriarchs of his family, his mother is played by Adams and his mamaw, Close. In the first couple seconds of the trailer, Adams can be seen slipping a pill into her mouth on route to a funeral. Later, Close shields a young Vance from seeing his mother picked up off the street. There are arrests and physical altercations and images of poverty abound. It’s a who’s who of the poor, white South. I have no qualms with Vance telling his story. To be honest, it’s a gripping story, but one that exists within the vacuum of Vance’s world. It’s a vantage point into Appalachia, but not the only one. The larger issue with Hillbilly Elegy (both the film and the memoir) has to do with the stories that don’t get told.
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Hillbilly Elegy, the memoir, really took off in 2016, and became a looking glass for people attempting to understand working class white America. Vance’s memoir avails itself as the perfect guide. His story encapsulates all the tropes of Appalachia: family, poverty, struggle. But what Vance really hones in on in the book is the idea that “his story” is “our story.” He uses his own circumstance to speak to a larger group, analyzing the details of his past as some sort of explanation as to why Appalachia as a whole is the way that outsiders see it. But the pill-addled mother and the wickedly protective (if not wickedly crude) mamaw are only a shade of the truth. More than anything, what resonates through the memoir and in the first trailer for the film is that this is a narrative about what it takes to escape. Mamaw, in one scene, literally says, “I know I could have done better. You got to decide if you want to be somebody or not.” Ultimately, Hillbilly Elegy isn’t a portrait of Appalachia. It’s Vance’s exit strategy from a place that just can’t cultivate a success story.
And there’s the rub. I get the sentiment. I had two mamaws who could drink you through a case of Natural Light right quick. Growing up in East Tennessee, I lived in a trailer. I had cousins who got pregnant in high school and incarcerated a few years later. I, also, left Appalachia. I now write for a magazine in New York. But my story wasn’t an escape. And if I left you with those details alone, based on what pop culture has told you about where I come from, then you could imagine exactly what my adolescence looked like. And that’s because largely, that’s all anyone outside of Appalachia has ever really been exposed to. We use those details because depictions are hard and being lazy is easy. Hillbilly Elegy has presented itself as a holistic view of Appalachia, using inclusive language that speaks too broadly for the whole. In its wake, it created an image too vivid and specific to be reversed without backpedaling and a fresh perspective. Vance’s escape from Middletown has become the Cliff’s Notes for an entire culture. And because it is well written, it serves as a light at the top of a ridge. We’re just missing everything that lies in its shadows.
I know two things about my own story that seem to get lost in the phenom that is Hillbilly Elegy; I know that my story is only my own, and I know that staying in Appalachia is not a punishment. There’s something irksome about stepping in to say, “This is my story. Let me represent this multi-state region of the world with it.” And for Appalachia in particular, it’s damning for the predominant narrative to be one that reinforces so many stereotypes. Poverty and drug abuse are the outsiders’ song of choice, and it helps further solidify that these are people who just don’t know any better. Why would they ever want this without the sting of addiction and oppression keeping them down?
From the looks of the first trailer, the film adaptation of Hillbilly Elegy hasn’t rid itself of the memoir’s original sin.
And yet, there are so many people back in my neck of the woods who chose to stick around, calling Appalachia home for the rest of their lives. They became biologists who spend weeks at a time in the mountains, communing with nature and offering scientific insight into how climate change is affecting wildlife. One woman I know moved into a house on the same street as her parents, raising two kids and leading the community church’s youth group with her husband. Those stories don’t fit into the caricature well. Those stories stay buried in the foothills of the Appalachians in favor of yarns that scratch a stereotype. It’s much more interesting to look at the grand product of an area than it is to ask why and how.
Knowing that there was only so much that could be done with the source material, I had hoped that the producers of the film would have at least cared to cart someone in from Appalachia to put the film together. Instead, the film is helmed by Howard, a born and raised Californian, and scripted by Taylor, a Coloradan-born, Michigan-educated writer. The desperation to check all the Oscar boxes seemed to take priority over leveraging the knowledge of someone familiar with the area, and what we’re left with is Glenn Close, wide-eyed and draped in a stone-washed tee shirt with a faded cardinal on it. To the rest of the world, it might appear as a visceral portrait of poverty, but to those who know the real Appalachia, it reads as an invitation to gawk and pity at something that only vaguely represents home. And much like the writer of the memoir, those people get to leave it behind, talking about how effective it was, not knowing that the window they were looking through was incredibly narrow in scope.
When it comes to stories of Appalachia, I’m still waiting for more tales that depict the pride of living in such a lush and mysterious area. I long for stories that revere the resilience to stay as much as those that highlight the courage to leave. And when we have a breadth of those stories, penned and directed by people who live there, maybe the occasional story focused on the region’s most dramatic qualities won’t feel so pointed.
For four years, Hillbilly Elegy has resonated with audiences as an analytical look into part of America, but in the end, Vance’s story fails to be the all-encompassing explanation of a 13-state region. No one person’s story can. Neither his, nor mine. The issue isn’t the story; it’s the assumption that one story could say any more than the next. And from the looks of the trailer, I can only assume the film will continue Hillbilly Elegy’s legacy, painting the portrait of what people like to believe Appalachia and its inhabitants are. Looking into my mom’s eyes across the counter that day pissed me off. Because while asking if I ever thought they were an embarrassment, she seemed small. And she’s not fucking small. And she surely isn’t embarrassing. To quote the random character in the trailer working in what seems to be a Shoe Show, “Don’t make us your excuse, JD.”
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Justin Kirkland is a writer for Esquire, where he focuses on entertainment, television, and pop culture.
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