The criticism of Hillbilly Elegy exposes the motivations of the left

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Over the weekend I sat down to watch Hillbilly Elegy, the controversial film currently available on Netflix, expecting it to be terrible. The reviews are almost universally bad – scathingly bad – pointing to this true personal story of one man’s escape from poverty as wrong, wrong, wrong. 

I was struck, as I often have been before, by the refusal of people who claim to care about social mobility and helping people out of poverty to actually listen to the people who have done just that. The Guardian dismissed the story as ‘promoting the same old bootstrap nonsense’, opining that the memoir it was based on, written by JD Vance and published in 2016, was jumped on by apparently out of touch elites to explain why so much of poor, rural America voted for Donald Trump that year. 

The movie tells the story of a fateful night where JD is in the thick of interview week at law school, with his entire career resting on the outcome, when he gets a call from his sister to say that his mother is in the hospital, having overdosed on heroin. JD walks out of a dinner with prospective employers and drives ten hours through the night to his hometown of Middletown, Ohio.

Once there he spends the day calling round trying to find a rehab bed for his mother, and putting thousands of dollars on multiple credit cards to pay for her place before she walks out, declaring she won’t go. After setting her up in a motel, physically wrestling with her to stop her from doing more drugs, and arranging to hand off her care to his sister, JD takes a decision described as ‘sociopathic’ by one reviewer – he drives ten more hours through the night to make it back to the city for his life changing job interview. 

Interwoven through this ‘present day’ story are flashbacks illustrating the various events that made up JD’s chaotic childhood, and bringing to life the characters of his mother, portrayed by Amy Adams, and his fiercest advocate – mamaw, played by an almost unrecognisable Glenn Close. 

The label of ‘chaotic’ only begins to hint at the way JD Vance grew up, as the film takes us through a series of events. We are shown his mother, a nurse, getting high on opioids at work before being fired. Another time, she threatens to kill him, driving much too fast and swerving in and out of traffic in a harrowing scene. When JD escapes the car, she laughs at him for believing her threat, then beats him as he tries to find help. 

We also see his mother’s terrifying mood swings, where she switches rapidly back and forth from happy to angry leaving her teenage son with no idea what is going to happen next, as well as the parade of boyfriends she is constantly moving the family to live with. 

A reviewer for Refinery29 labelled these retellings as ‘navel gazing’ and ‘superficial’, calling the character of JD ‘lacking self-awareness’. Remember, this film tells the true story of one man’s abusive childhood and his triumph over it. The same reviewer argued that the film ‘threw all the women under the bus’ and didn’t give them proper credit. In that version of events, JD was only able to be successful because of the sacrifices of the women in his life – and the reviewer includes his mother in that assessment. 

In these criticisms, the reviewers unintentionally expose their own lack of understanding of what it is like to live in poverty and grow up in an unstable home. In pursuit of their political agendas and attempts to lionise the poor women in the story, they skip over the abuse of a child. They ignore the choices his mother, an adult, made and their impact on the children she was responsible for. They call him sociopathic for learning what every person who has loved a drug addict has eventually had to learn – you can’t help them until they want to help themselves, and you certainly can’t put your life on hold waiting for that to happen. 

Worst of all, they refuse to recognise JD Vance’s achievement. It is far from easy to be academically successful with a home life as his was. It is extraordinarily difficult to develop a moral compass when your parents don’t give you one. And it takes real determination to strike a balance between helping your family and refusing to be held back by them. 

For these commentators, the story of JD Vance is inconvenient because it exposes the myth of the helpless poor by showing that by making different choices, you can get a different outcome. His story shows that while he had to work harder than his more advantaged peers, success was still possible. And so instead of asking how – how did you do it? How did you find the strength? What were the things that made a difference? – and then working on ways to make those different choices easier and more accessible to more people, they attack JD. 

In doing so, they unmask their motivations. For all the talk about caring about poverty and wanting to help, when faced with a real life, tried and tested example of what actually works, they turn away. When hundreds of people pour into Facebook comment sections to say they see themselves and their families in the on-screen portrayals, and that this is what their real lives look like, they refuse to believe it. 

And so we’re left with the question that voters in the US and UK have been grappling with over the last few years – does the left really, really want to help the poor? Or is their expressed interest more about pushing a particular world view than making a practical difference? 

Hillbilly Elegy is an incredible story of individual determination to succeed against the odds, and if you care about social mobility, you should watch it.


Emily Barley is the Chairman of Conservatives for Liberty and Deputy chairman of Rotherham Conservatives.