Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy has invited another round of warnings about poverty porn, but the film version of J.D. Vance’s 2016 best-seller deserves a fresh appreciation. Yes, it lacks sociological and cultural nuance, but it’s the kind of movie a lot of Americans will love, and its cinematic incarnation of the rural economy, and work, present a fuller picture than the book and merit a close study.
In this coming-of-age popcorn drama, Vance leaves Middletown, Ohio, for the Marines, Yale Law, and a lucrative career in finance and tech. Shrewdly, Vance pitched his book as an elucidation of Trump’s country, especially Appalachia, and the movie’s marketing reflects that sheen. But this is not a political piece. It’s a family drama, clichéd but realistic, about coping with a mom who’s an addict (Amy Adams) with the help of a tough, funny, chain-smoking grandmother (Glenn Close). These people can act, and they are convincing in their flawed, broken love for each other. If it sounds like a pretty good story, it’s because it is, and I bet a lot of people will love the movie, despite the negative critical reviews. Given the political moment, we want more.
That’s why I paid attention to the jobs (a focus of my own Appalachia/Rust Belt film, with Dave Bernabo, Moundsville, now on PBS). Vance’s grandfather moved from the hills of Kentucky to work at Middletown’s steel mill. Yes, there are factories in the Rust Belt, just fewer. To support himself, young J.D. works as a grocery store cashier. His mom is a nurse. His grandmother is served dinner by a young man with Meals on Wheels. A friend notes that he had a paper route “but got laid off.” There are cops around, and everybody, presumably, has relatives who work for a local prison, or the CVS, Dollar Tree or Walmart. Those are the jobs of modern working-class America, and you get a fuller picture than you do in the book.
At Yale Law School, elites prepare to earn riches in the high tiers of American finance and law. Vance is not alone in leaving his hometown, displacing himself from family and community, to join that richer world, nor in suffering from the douchebaggery of its amateur sommeliers.
Here Hillbilly Elegy points to a true tragedy of modern American life. For millions, essential life choices often boil down to community without good jobs or good jobs without community.
The reason is that, as factories have closed – for all kinds of reasons, not just trade deals – “middle-class work” has been downgraded. The problem isn’t that people don’t work, it’s that they don’t get paid enough. The Amazon sorting center is the new steel mill, but it pays $30,000 instead of $80,000. Tens of millions of people labor, without the protection of unions, for around $10 an hour, which works out to around $20,000 a year. The federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour hasn’t budged since 2009. Turning around this Titanic by whatever means is crucial to revival. Twenty grand for full-time work is simply not enough to live on. Also essential is checking health care costs and offering affordable insurance to everybody. Through his mom’s illness, Vance, too, suffers from the tyranny of America’s broken health system.
Hillbilly Elegy lacks in prescriptive fair wage and health care policy (besides the useful but incomplete work hard son), but it does show how cruelly broken swathes of this country are. See those boarded up main streets. Opioid addicts stumbling. All that rust.
The brokenness is there, but these are limited lenses. Most people in Appalachia are not on opiates– or unemployed. They work, usually for less pay than they deserve. In lecturing in his book about “learned helplessness,” Vance pissed off many with his admonition that Appalachians could be prosperous and happy if only they got their lives in order. Most people do, and there is a happy middle ground between Yale and overdose.
What Hillbilly Elegy misses is those normal, healthy ways in which Appalachia and the Rust Belt are rebuilding after de-industrialization. Tech startups coming out of the region’s many colleges and universities. A boom in the creation of small businesses like coffee shops, breweries, and yoga studios. To be sure, many of these enterprises fail, but, as it becomes clearer that manufacturing really isn’t coming back, they represent a healthy adjustment and pivot to a more realistic assessment of what the rural economy might look like. A resurgent book publishing industry. Those stories are just as true as the anger, opioid addiction, and Trumpism.
Last month, I stopped in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, an Appalachian town as rusty as they come, and sipped a cappuccino in the newly-opened Bee-You Café, inside a yoga and massage studio, the Yoga Garden. Safely distanced and masked, I chatted with a trade electrician named Marcus Savage. Marcus is white and 37, just a year older than J.D. Vance. They’re cut from the same genetic cloth.
Living in his Rust Belt town — unlike Vance, “staying behind” — where life is cheaper, has given Marcus time to pursue his work as an “artist, musician, and amateur thinker,” he wrote me. “Often occupying space at my local coffee shop (Bee-You, of course). Meaningful human interaction is becoming more important as I get older, so I’ve gravitated away from social media because of the lack of sincerity I find in those interactions.”
Marcus focuses on actively belonging to a community, and balancing that with work. That’s become, he said, “relatively difficult, especially lately. It feels like many people are totally out of sync with the things I find important about that balance.”
Marcus reminded me that the fight is not for a utopian restoration, but accepting, reckoning with, and improving the reality we have right now. It doesn’t matter how hard anybody tries. Inevitably, these regions will change, and in most cases these days that means being less populated and less prosperous than before.
The 20th century is not a realistic benchmark. Between 1880 and 1980, places like the Ohio River Valley boomed because they had abundant coal and gas, a network of manufacturers and suppliers, and an expanding continental consumer market served by river and rail. In the cycles of global capitalism, it was that region’s turn, as it was Manchester’s in the 19th and Shanghai’s in the 21st. It’s an accident of economic history, not the result of policy, that Middletown was rich in 1960 and poor in 2020.
Even without trade deals and foreign competition, a lot of factories would have closed. Capitalism works in cycles. Companies have shelf lives. CEOs screw up. Patriarchs die. Consumers stop buying what you’re making. Factories move to U.S. states where wages are cheaper and unions weaker.
What I like about Vance’s story is its emphasis on human agency. Waking up, working hard, and getting after it, that’s always a good way to go. I disagree with many Vance critics. That part of his story is humanizing. And I like the absence of Trump in the film. It’s a minority of people in small-town America who care about national politics. And there are even Democrats.
With all the noise on your little screen, it’s a good moment to remind yourself of the bigger picture. The Appalachian Mountains have formed 480 million years ago when tectonic plates collided to form the supercontinent Pangaea. These hills were once as high as the Himalayas.
The first humans arrived from Asia over 10,000 years ago. For thousands of years before white settlement, civilizations rose and fell, leaving behind thousands of burial mounds leveled by white settlers roaring west in the 18th and 19th centuries. Then came the industrial revolution. And that American century.
And now, something else. It’s mostly undefined, definitely poorer, but people are getting after it. That’s why Appalachia, a broad, diverse 13-state region of 25 million, is full of people hustling, and, like my new friend Marcus, taking a coffee break at the local yoga studio, and steadily cracking the code in their own interesting way.
John W. Miller is a global journalist with two decades’ experience reporting from six continents and 45 countries, on print, digital, video, and audio platforms. He has reported for the Wall Street Journal and Time Magazine and has won awards from the National Press Foundation and the German Marshall Fund.