10 Reasons Appalachians Love ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ (Even if Critics Hate It)

Hillbilly Elegy, on Netflix, has joined The Shack, See No Evil Hear No Evil, and Saw V as films audiences love and critics hate. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film scores 26% with critics, and 86% with audiences.

The split seems to reflect “the two Americas”, as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has suggested, but it’s also likely the critical disdain is a continuation of the backlash against J.D. Vance’s 2016 memoir. As the reviews poured in, some critics went against the early pan cascade to say that maybe this wasn’t such a bad movie after all. The movie is “an earnest depiction of the most dramatic parts of the book: a lower-middle-class family caught in the throes of addiction,” Lisa R. Pruitt wrote in an analysis for 100 Days in Appalachia, a startup regional news site. “The crummy reviews ultimately evince this profound and persistent disconnect between those who write the reviews and “regular” folks.” She explained:

Many viewers will relate to “Hillbilly Elegy” simply because addiction is such a shockingly common phenomenon, one that touches many families and every community. Others will appreciate the film because it presents J.D. Vance achieving the “American dream.” It’s an ideal many find irresistible in spite of the fact that – or, indeed, because – upward mobility is more elusive than ever.

The dynamic flipped the script of 2016, when, as it’s easy to forget, Hillbilly Elegy enjoyed a hot minute as a fashionable read for coastal critics. The book fell from grace as Appalachian writers pointed out that Vance’s was but one white man’s story, and did not represent a sprawling, complicated region of 13 states and 25 million people.

I moved to Pittsburgh in 2011, and although I’ve spent a lot of time in Moundsville, WV for my PBS movie with Dave Bernabo, I’m still learning about the region. I am curious about why Appalachian audiences like Hillbilly Elegy, so I spent a couple hours this morning reading comments about the film on my favorite regional Facebook group, Appalachian Americans. Here are ten reasons (including many points argued by Pruitt) people there say they love Hillbilly Elegy.

  1. It tells the truth about drugs. Michelle: “As someone who is a mother, a grandmother, and a woman who was born and raised in Kentucky then moved to Ohio, I found it difficult to watch. Lots of truths to all of this. It touched my life in more ways than one. I have walked through hell on earth with a family member using heroin. Praise God that member has been clean for several years. The choices made are hard on the children. There will be fallout for years to come. The movie was good. It touched me in many ways.”
  2. It’s about a loving family. Cami: I just watched “Hillbilly Elegy.” I read the book a year or so ago. The book was excellent and the movie was very good as well. I love the way the story shows the strength of family, the love, loyalty, and sacrifice the family shows for even its weakest members.”
  3. It celebrates regional pride. Phyllis: “It was a great story that told about a family leaving the hills to have a better life. If you listened at all he told of a time in life and how he enjoyed going to Kentucky to be with family. It simply tells a story about a person who struggled to grow up and them made it in life . I never lived in the hills but my family is from Tennessee and as a child we spent a lot of time there. Great memories and I’m not ashamed of my heritage.”
  4. It pushes back against prejudice against the Appalachian poor. Deborah: “Many don’t like the word hillbilly, but that is what people called us. There was a lot of discrimination and oppression. There is a deeper story that needs to be told. My family’s 3rd generation are corporate executives, school administrators, medical doctors and healthcare professionals, as well as business owners. Some still struggle as in most families. I didn’t see it as being about eastern Kentucky but about a social system not accepting of those who are different, keeping people in their place.
  5. It’s an accurate account of emigration. Kay: “I watched the movie and enjoyed it, a good depiction of the struggle of making change. My husband and I struggled with the decision to leave West Virginia when we were expecting our first child, we moved to Indiana. It wasn’t too far away from home. I hold tight to my heritage and when asked, always answer I was born and raised in West Virginia.”
  6. There aren’t that many other movies about Appalachia. Robert: “This was an improvement over that last great movie about Appalachian people, Deliverance.”
  7. It has great acting. Sonja: “I watched the movie last night and thought it was good. It caught my attention because of the people in it, not because I wanted to judge a geographic area. I thought Glenn Close and Amy Adams were great.”
  8. It’s faithful to the book. Donna: “I loved the book and liked the movie. I don’t think the book was ever meant to be a story of Appalachia; it’s one man’s story of his life in the area. He obviously loved his mamaw and like a lot of us would fight for the honor of his family name. He is calling himself a hillbilly and it’s his elegy. In the movie he defends one lawyers snide comments about hillbillies… I’m not understanding why some people are insulted when the book is an autobiography, it was never about you. I don’t mean to be confrontational, I just don’t understand I guess. I’m happy to be called a hillbilly and I’m proud of my family.”
  9. It’s inspirational. Eric: “I think this young mans journey in life is a PRIME EXAMPLE that you can either succumb to the ‘Product of Your Environment’ or rise above it. You can cry about no jobs and this and that and so on, or you can step up and establish goals and achieve those goals. That young man took a military path to then go to one of the top law schools in the country. That is an accomplishment in itself.”
  10. They cheer J.D. Vance. Em Jay: “I read the book and saw the movie. The movie does leave a lot out however my opinion is both were good. The acting in the movie was also good and watchworthy. The book, which came first, was simply on JD’s memories and HIS thoughts about HIS life. Hence the term memoirs…. Good for him for personally making himself successful.”

John W. Miller

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