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Growing cultures of despair in Middle America

Reviews

American director Ron Howard’s latest film, Hillbilly Elegy, released on Netflix in late November, is the latest Trump-era attempt to capture the decay of Middle America. Based on a bestselling memoir written by J.D. Vance (2016), the movie tells a heart-rending story set in the late 1990s of a family who migrates from Jackson, Kentucky to the industrial city of Middletown, Ohio in search of factory work. In Middletown, the characters struggle with the costs and expectations of school, jobs, rent, food, and each other.

The film uses flashbacks to move between J.D.’s formative memories as a teenager in a tumultuous family coping with poverty to his early adult years struggling to pay for law school at Yale. His education is dramatically interrupted when his mother overdoses on heroin. In the aftermath, J.D. returns to Ohio to help his sister care for their ailing mother.

Despite memorable performances from Glenn Close and Amy Adams, Hillbilly Elegy is a shallow portrayal of the decline of the American white working class. While the film does have captivating and engaging moments, it falls flat with its clichés about rugged individualism and ultimately disappoints as a story focused on Appalachian poverty and the erosion of the welfare state.

The grandmother, Mawmaw (Close), is a hardened cigarette-smoking matriarch who keeps a watchful eye over her grandson, J.D. (Gabriel Basso) and his sister, Lindsay (Haley Bennett). Adams stars as Bev, the mother, who battles with drug addiction fuelled by painful memories of her past. The pervasive trauma experienced by the family is intergenerational. The cycle of addiction, abuse, and crushing poverty is eventually broken by J.D., through a combination of Mawmaw’s tough love, along with his sheer determination and hard work.

The subject matter mirrors what Chris Hedges describes as a culture in despair. Hedges writes about Pittsburgh, a former “industrial hub for the garment industry,” that after years of globalization and trade deals, is in a state of “post-industrial decay […] the urban blight and the shattered lives and despair that are sadly familiar in most cities in the United States.” Hedges goes on to connect the disintegration of the city to the rising despair in its citizens: record numbers of people plummeting into drug and alcohol addiction, hunger, suicide, gambling, and morbid obesity.

This general sentiment rings true in Howard’s depiction of Vance’s Middletown, but Hillbilly Elegy stops at the individual level and leaves the viewer without any appreciation for the wider implications of deindustrialization and the abandonment of an entire generation.

The passionate and evocative performances of Close, Adams, and Bennett are one of the film’s saving graces, and they are a dramatic testament to the livelihoods of women in a class structure that is so unforgiving to its poorest and most marginalized. The women flawlessly take on and execute representations of motherhood and work in a society that gives them little hope outside of the enterprising J.D., who alone escapes the cycle they are all caught in. The women epitomize the images in Hedges’ searing account of American decline.

Yet despite these dramatic performances, the film is suspiciously absent of any political critique. In fact, it reasons that the plight experienced by J.D.’s mother and grandmother is the fault of their unwillingness to take individual responsibility for their own lives. Bev’s lack of an adequate work ethic is the reason for her downfall. This is the central dynamic of the film.

The absence of a political lens serves to internalize what is fundamentally a class struggle and boils down the plight of the poor and working class in post-industrial heartland cities to an issue unconnected to systemic factors. Hillbilly Elegy preaches that, with a recipe of tough love and self-responsibility, anyone can escape difficult circumstances, just as Vance did. Moreover, the film misses the mark in its attempt to be endearing and misses an opportunity with a talented cast and significant budget to tell a compelling story.

Unsurprisingly, the author of the original source material is a prominent right-wing commentator and venture capitalist. Vance regularly appears on the Tucker Carlson show on Fox News and is a frequent contributor to conservative magazines including the National Review.

Now a self-made millionaire, Vance identifies as a social conservative and is only somewhat critical of the current policies of the Republican Party. He is also an opponent of social welfare and its recipients, who he has blamed for their “abuse” of food stamps, disability benefits, and Section 8 housing.

This might explain why Hillbilly Elegy presents nothing in the way of a critique of the American economy, the hollowing out of the welfare state, deindustrialization, or any number of the other comorbidities of capitalism that have afflicted “sacrifice zones” across America.

Hillbilly Elegy depicts an America that doesn’t exist—one in which hard work and perseverance alone can secure prosperity in an inherently unfair society. In the words of David Sims, writing in The Atlantic, Howard’s film is “nothing more than a sensational snapshot” of poverty in Middle America, and a hollow attempt to treat a deeply political issue with the seriousness it deserves.

Kimberly Wilson is a coordinating editor of Canadian Dimension. Kim works as an adult educator facilitating an Academic Upgrading class with Alexandra Park Neighbourhood Learning Centre in Toronto’s West End. She holds a Master of Arts degree in Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies from Trent University.

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