I noticed that most people dismissed this movie even before it was released. Most of the negativity surrounding Hillbilly Elegy was due to the political influence of the source material, which was cited as a sort of benchmark in understanding how Trump won the “white working class” vote in 2016.
Based on the controversial bestselling memoir of the same name by J.D. Vance — and adapted for film by Vanessa Taylor, best known for writing Hope Springs and co-writing The Shape of Water with Guillermo Del Toro. The Screenplay manages to remove many layers from the source material memoir to avoid any right-wing propaganda.
The movie is told through J.D. Vance’s eyes, using flashbacks, jumping forward and backward in time. J.D. is from central Ohio but considers himself to be from the Hill Country of Jackson, Kentucky (his family roots are from the Appalachian region). It is important to note that a significant number of people within the Appalachian community did not embrace J.D.’s memoir. Still, many people outside of this community were fascinated by it, primarily by coastal liberal elite types.
Nevertheless, without any of the book’s political stuff, the movie leans heavily on family melodrama. J.D. (Gabriel Basso) is a law student at Yale; he is attempting to navigate through college life away from his middle American upbringing. While at the same time hiding his family background from his college girlfriend Usha (Freida Pinto). Through flashbacks, we get to see young J.D. (Owen Asztalos) and his early family life. His mother, Bev (Amy Adams), is a single mom who works as a nurse but seems to be a chronic drug addict, mentally unbalanced, and violent. Bev’s eventual heroin overdose throws adult J.D.’s plans into disarray.
J.D.’s grandma, “mamaw” Vance (Glenn Close), is the rock of the family and teaches J.D. valuable life lessons. She teaches J.D. responsibility. She provides him with the structure needed for success.
The movie’s main plot point is about J.D. driving back home to Ohio to deal with his Mother’s relapse situation. J.D. has to figure out a place for his Mother to do rehab and then drive overnight to make a 10 am interview for a highly sought-after internship. The scenes between J.D. and his sister Lindsay (Haley Bennet) are very emotional.
There was a good story to be told here, but it wasn’t J.D. Vance’s story; it was his Mother’s and Mamaw’s story. Those two intertwined stories were the two most compelling aspects of this entire movie.
The performances are solid, considering there are many limitations to the development of each character. The actors do very well with what they are given within the script. Gabriel Basso portrays J.D. as awkward, whiny, and at times unlikable. Similar to how the real-life J.D. Vance comes across; He constantly whines about something on social media. Essentially, he is just another right-wing talking head nut job.
I get the sense that J.D. has contempt for his humble background, like he is almost looking down at it. We never get a clear understanding of the real reason why J.D.’s family fell so hard, it feels like that is how things are supposed to be no matter what, and J.D. has to find his way out of that environment at all costs.
Glenn Close ended up getting an Academy Award nomination for her performance here. Some of the best moments of the movie come from this character. Mamaw Vance is this chain-smoking, tough love granny, and Glenn Close is fantastic here. She is the mirror image of the real-life Mamaw Vance.
Amy Adams needed more screen time. I felt like we needed more time to explore her backstory on a deeper level. There was apparent emotional damage done to Bev during her upbringing. The reason for all the fights, the screaming matches, the overdoses, and the constant need to self-sabotage herself was an area that needed to be analyzed further.
My favorite thing from this movie was the cinematography by Maryse Alberti. Phenomenal stuff, as usual from her.
Hillbilly Elegy is a drama that attempts to touch on several themes like never forgetting your roots and where you come from. The inherent nature of poverty, the difficulty of escaping from it, and the importance of your ancestry. However, the story doesn’t really go anywhere within the context of the drama, and it feels rushed and condensed. It simplifies and minimizes essential aspects of the family’s troubled history. This whole story would have been better served as a limited series instead of a movie.
Director Ron Howard’s filmography is full of excellent films, some of which are American cinematic classics. And although this movie may not be one of his best works, it still manages to provide us with plenty of debate. This is precisely what films, or any form of art for that matter, are supposed to stimulate and encourage.
Two out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿
Hillbilly Elegy, (2020). Streaming on Netflix.