Do you know what a hillbilly is? Everyone has heard of the term, but assigning it exactly is not that easy. The “Hügel-Willi”, translated into German, is a derogatory term in the USA, like the “hillbilly” here, and primarily describes the white inhabitants in the rural and mountainous part of Kentucky. Four years ago, when Donald Trump was elected President of the USA, the autobiographical nonfiction book Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance came out. In it, the current investment banker, born in 1984, describes how he rose from socially marginalized America of the so-called White Trash to military service in the Marine Corps and a scholarship at the elite Yale University to the upper class. Vance’s description of the milieu he comes from was celebrated by the US feature pages in the 2016 election year because it tells of the people who brought Trump to the White House and who had supposedly not been listened to for too long. Now the successful Hollywood director Ron Howard (who is responsible for “Apollo 13”, “A Beautiful Mind” and “Solo: A Star Wars Story”, among others) has filmed the highly controversial book by the avowed Republican JD Vance for Netflix, top-class cast with Amy Adams and Glenn Close.
“Hillbilly Elegy” tells the story of an overweight boy who grows up in a run-down small town full of barricaded shops on Ohio’s main shopping street, the Rust Belt, and whose family he visits every summer with his mother, sister and grandma, originally from the eponymous Hillbilly area of Kentucky is coming. His single mother works as a nurse and is addicted to drugs. The grandmother lives two houses down, separated from the grandfather, who also lives on the same street. Strife and violence are omnipresent in the family. The mother, who freaks out in the argument with the son and sometimes races through town with a hundred things in the car, then beats her offspring until a neighbor calls the police. The grandmother, who emigrated from Kentucky to the then industrialized Ohio decades ago, was beaten by her husband, who was also from the pampas, until she set him on fire in his urine on the sofa. The boy, on the other hand, rioted with friends at the hardware store at night, and as soon as he glanced down the street from the house with the desolate, broken-down wooden houses, he saw neighbors yelling at or beating each other up.
“Hillbilly Elegy” is a dense and disturbing social drama and tells this story in flashbacks from the point of view of the young man who studies at Yale and is about to lose his university place or to land a great job that will save his studies and a ticket to the upper class. Until suddenly his mother ends up in the hospital because of a heroin overdose and he drives to Ohio in the middle of the application marathon, where he has to organize accommodation for his homeless mother within half a day under time pressure. From here the film fans out the past, which piece by piece tells the dilemma of the family and a whole class.
The question of class membership also shapes life at the elite university, because the boy, who has meanwhile matured into a man, finds his way around Yale rather poorly, regardless of whether it is about the right tone when talking to potential employers or about table manners. The fear of taking the wrong fork at a fancy dinner and thus spoiling one’s life’s path has seldom been so vividly staged. His educated middle class friend helps him in this misery.
The film reveals the subject of class affiliation in the USA and shows how it functions as a line of social segregation and as a cultural identity – without the voyeuristic approach that television documentaries always display. This story may remind one or the other of Didier Eribon’s book “Return to Reims”, which is also hotly debated in this country, although the lower classes in Kentucky and Ohio have no communist past. There is no superficial political party support, for example for Trump. Whereby the grandmother’s reprimand when he speaks politically correct of “Native Americans” and it runs over his mouth, they were actually called “Indians”, speaks volumes about the basic political attitude of the characters. This social drama differs significantly from a Ken Loach film in other ways as well. Above all, the book by Vance, but also the film, come up with a very clear, flat neoliberal morality. Anyone can achieve social advancement, it only has something to do with the will – and with a little support, in this case from the grandmother, who ultimately leads her grandson on the path of industry in an authoritarian manner. If you don’t work, it’s your own fault.
The good grades in high school are followed by obedience in the Marine Corps, an Iraq mission, a visit to the elite university and then the well-earned permanent position with the PayPal founder and neoliberal hardcore ideologist Peter Thiel as an investment banker – at least that is the biography of the real JD Vance. Critics in the USA see a story in his book that seems to be taken from the construction kit of the “Reaganomics” logic as a prime example of a supposed American fairy tale. Empowerment here means to assert yourself successfully in the market and to take fate into your own hands. So it’s not surprising that JD Vance was talking about an application for a US Senatorial seat for the Republicans two years ago. The subject of racism does not play a role in the book and the film, the focus remains on what has become of the white working class of the Rust Belt in the course of deindustrialization, including a panning to rural Kentucky. However, »Hillbilly Elegy« does not develop an emancipatory perspective. Solidarity only exists within the family, and the downside is that every act of violence remains within the family and is regulated internally according to the applicable hierarchies.
Actually, this well-composed film in its fanned out flashbacks is implemented quite convincingly. Glenn Close curses through the film as a grandmother smoking cigarettes and Amy Adams, who usually plays Superman’s friend Lois Lane or is a linguist with a house on the beach in “Arrival”, embodies the young JD’s aggressive, helpless and deeply frustrated mother credibly. However, the film does not offer any real criticism of gender roles, their social attributions and economic constraints. At the very end, the film JD manages to come to his interview in a suit after a ten-hour drive at night, and leave the misery in Ohio behind while his mother is lying around in a motel room. “I’m glad to be here” is the final sentence of this film, which with its Hollywood-esque self-adulation in terms of family solidarity tells more about how to leave the misery of the white working class behind in elbow-style than really to deal with it.
»Hillbilly Elegy« from November 24th. on Netflix