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J.D. Vance Versus Film Twitter

How film critics helped send the ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ author off the cliff.
January 5, 2022
J.D. Vance Versus Film Twitter
(Photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

I’d be remiss if I didn’t note, briefly, that the online collective known as Film Twitter—critics, Letterboxd users, and sundry others—managed to completely break Ohio Republican Senate candidate J.D. Vance’s brain.

At least, that’s one takeaway from Simon van Zuylen-Wood’s lengthy reported feature on Vance and his Senate campaign. Vance, you may remember, became something of a darling in the political class because he was willing in his memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, to speak hard truths about the state of poor whites in Appalachia specifically and middle America more broadly. Using his own broken home—multiple father figures and a drug-addicted mother—and the manner in which he climbed out of it—service in the military followed by Yale Law School—as a lens through which to examine the rise of joblessness, shiftlessness, and drug abuse, Vance seemed like a counter to the blame-everyone-but-yourself components of Trumpism.

But there were those on the left who always thought he was a charlatan, a huckster, a hedge-fund phony. And when the adaptation of his memoir by Ron Howard was viciously panned by film critics, it seemed to break him fully:

When the“Hillbilly Elegy” movie came out on Netflix in 2020, it was not just critically panned but greeted with intense online mockery, and the tenuous cultural diplomacy achieved by the book seemed to unravel for good. (Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 83 percent. Critics’ score: 25 percent.) According to Vance’s best friend from Yale, Jamil Jivani, the wounding commentary was the “last straw” in his falling-out with elites.

As someone who liked Vance’s book but panned the movie version (though without being quite as vicious or sneering as some of its harshest critics), this is an amusing turn of events. Because the movie failed, in large part, as a result of the decision to jettison everything about the book that made it interesting.

Largely gone was the sociopolitical critique of a generation raised without the steadying influence of churches or fathers. Largely gone was the crippling and debilitating plague of drug use, reduced in the film to a single character (J.D. Vance’s mother, played by Amy Adams) rather than a broader pathology. Largely gone was the reshaping of his character by the United States Marine Corps, the organization that saved him from going down the same path as so many others from his hometown. Largely gone was his time at Yale, which demonstrated to him how out of his depth he was socially.

What was left for the movie was little more than downhome melodrama, a story about a kid with a crappy mom and a loving grandmother who, when she wasn’t cussin’ up a storm, was prone to deploying wisdom gleaned from the Terminator movies. It was awards season bait in the sense that awards-givers love performances like those delivered by Adams and Glenn Close (who played Vance’s beloved Mamaw). But it was also hollow, empty, and completely devoid of the meaning people found in the book.

There were undoubtedly some critics who, even before a single frame of film was shot, were appalled that a figure such as J.D. Vance would get the Ron Howard treatment. Film critics are, generally, a progressive lot, and progressives looked more and more askance at Vance the closer he nudged toward Trumpism. But they’re not blind, either. There’s a reason that the progressive satire Don’t Look Up has been savaged by the same critics who heaped scorn on Hillbilly Elegy: The story simply doesn’t work. Bad movies are bad movies. And Hillbilly Elegy is a bad movie. It’s neither entertaining nor revelatory. Vance’s politics, in the end, had very little to do with the film’s (deserved) raking over the coals.

Unable to handle the fact that his life story was strip-mined into something mawkish, Vance has done what so many people from his hometown have done: searched for someone to blame for life’s unfairness. It is, I guess, the last, sad stop in Vance’s political fall from tough-minded diagnostic of social failure to Trump-like whiner always on the hunt for someone being unfair to him, a devolution Mona Charen ably charted here.

Sonny Bunch

Sonny Bunch is the Culture Editor of The Bulwark. Before serving as editor-in-chief of the film site Rebeller, he was the executive editor of and film critic for The Washington Free Beacon. He is currently a contributor to The Washington Post and his work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, Commentary Magazine, The Weekly Standard, and elsewhere. He is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association