Hillbilly Elegy

Movie poster for Hillbilly Elegy / Landmark Cinemas

Director: Ron Howard

Screenwriter: Vanessa Taylor

Cast: Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Gabriel Basso, Owen Aszatalos, Haley Bennet, Frida Pinto and Bo Hopkins

            Hillbilly Elegy is based on a memoir by JD Vance of the same title. It chronicles the life of JD’s upbringing with his eccentric and drug addicted mother and the influence he received from his hard-pushing yet coarse grandmother. Hillbilly Elegy is an almost all heartbreaking tale of a southern family trying to keep it together. The film transitions from past to present all throughout. It is narrated by JD, played by Gabriel Basso. Majority of the film takes place in Middletown, Ohio, where JD and his family lives, but as he states in the opening of the film, he feels most at home in Jackson, Kentucky as spent every summer there growing up and this is where his family’s roots are. The film quickly introduces each of its main characters. His mother Bev, played by Amy Adams (an actress whose work I’ve always adored) his grandmother who goes by Mamaw throughout the film, played by Glenn Close, his grandfather played by Bo Hopkins and his sister Lindsay, played by Haley Bennet. 

            In an early scene of the film, Bev is shown as a mother who would do anything to protect her son and knows how to keep him smiling. Unfortunately, this narrative doesn’t last long. Watchers first see her short fuse go off as a boyfriend of hers brings home a dog for her children, which she first is excited about, but then quickly has an attitude change as the dog begins to run through the house. The amount of aggression she takes on in this scene is uncalled for and leaves her children frightened and confused. She attempts to make a joke and clear the tension, but a second later when JD runs into a table and knocks over some old Ester eggs, the aggression becomes larger than before. 

Watchers really see how much her outbreaks can escalate as her and JD begin to drive home after buying him sports cards in order to make up for her previous outburst. As JD becomes upset due to his mother telling him that she wants to move them in with her boyfriend, he explains that there’s no point in moving considering they are going to break up soon anyways. He mentions that a friend of his calls Bev’s changing boyfriends her “flavor of the week”. This sets Bev off and she begins to speed up and threaten to crash the car with them both in it. JD panics and climbs to the back seat and Bev begins to beat him as he begs her to stop. He escapes the car and runs to women’s house exclaiming that his mother is trying to kill him and is able to make it inside and call his grandma and grandpa for help. This whole scene leads to Bev being arrested and being placed in a rehab center for her drug abuse that leads the chaotic tendencies. 

            Addiction is a disease that leaves its victims to act in ways that are not of themselves. It has no mercy towards its victims. Those that have dealt with this disease either first hand or through a loved one know how much it can destroy a person and who they really are. Viewers of this film who know that can feel sympathy for Bev, but in my opinion, the film didn’t give its viewers the opportunity fully understand Bev before making her into a monster. Of course, Bev was flawed and wrong in many cases, but I don’t believe this film allowed us to really see how she became so ill. As the film goes on, we learn that Bev and her sister also had an incredibly harsh upbringing due to her their father’s alcoholism and their mother’s inability to comfort them through it, but it is a short scene which could almost lead to viewers forgetting and just remembering how awful Bev was as a mother to JD and Lindsay. 

Frame of Mamaw (Close) and young JD (Aszatalos) / The Oakland Press

            A scene set in the past shows the day JD’s grandfather passed away. JD, Bev and Mamaw are locked outside the house, yelling at him to open the door while he is deceased on the couch. After breaking in, they confirm that he has passed away. Something about how quick and almost casual this scene was resonated with me. When I was seventeen, I lost my grandmother. I had spent the night at her house and woke up the next morning to find that she had passed during the night. It was a sudden realization, but a forever changing moment. In the same routine this scene shows, theres not much of a moment you can take to begin to grieve and gather your emotions because you know that there are other arrangements that need to start being made. This scene can feel too real for a watcher whose lost someone they’ve always known on a day that seemed to be just like any other.

Bev, being a nurse, had confirmed he had passed and called for a coroner. We learn that while Bev was growing up, she saw her father has her best friend. JD heartbreakingly narrates “the only person who understood her was now gone”. His passing led Bev into a complete downward spiral. In a horrific scene shortly after his passing, Bev is in the middle of the street crying and yelling frantically, bleeding from her wrist. It is also noticeable that she is high by how she brutally yelling at her daughter. She later returns to work as a nurse in a hospital. It’s easy to recognize she is acting strange. She takes a pair of her coworkers roller blades and begins rolling through the halls while very obviously high. She is fired. 

Early in the film, present time JD, who is in law school at Yale, is attending a dinner in hopes of making an impression on the head of a law firm in D.C so he can get a summer internship there. JD attended undergrad at Ohio State and soon notices his differences against the other ivy league contenders. He also notices the difference between him and them as he is asked where he’s from and what his family does. An arrogant comment made calling his hometown full of “rednecks” sets him off and forces him to correct the man that he was there to impress. He calls his girlfriend, Usha, played by Frida Pinto, to help him understand what all the different forks are for. After this phone call he receives a call from his sister letting him know their mother has over dosed on heroin and was in the hospital. 

An overwhelmed JD makes the ten hour drive home in the middle of the night to go take care of his mother. The present time Bev shows as a much more beaten down and unpleasant women. We learn that Mamaw has already passed away which caused Bev to relapse and become much worse than she’s ever been. JD is finally able to beg his mother’s way into a rehab that will accept her with no insurance and just as she’s going to be taken in, she refuses. JD becomes incredibly upset and can’t understand why his mother continues to refuse help. He tried to take her back to her boyfriend’s house where the boyfriend then kicks her, throws her stuff off the balcony and yells profanities at her. 

Frame of Linday (Bennet), JD (Basso) and Bev (Adams) / Vulture-Sarah Jones

As JD is trying to find a place for his mother, he receives a call from the law firm he’d been hoping to making an impression on that he has been invited for final interview for the internship. The problem is, the interview is scheduled for 10:00am the next day, while he is ten hours away in Ohio. Desperate for the job, he agrees to be there. He knows he can’t leave without finding a place for his mom. Bev being unable to stay with Lindsay and her family, JD gets her a motel room. As JD leaves to get her some food, he returns to his mother trying to get high in the restroom. This scene is hard to watch because the viewer can see how desperate Bev is to keep using as she reaches for the needle in the toilet after JD had thrown it away. She reacts furiously towards JD and then begins to apologize and sob. It’s an incredibly tragic scene. 

A brokenhearted JD watches his mother sob on the bed while he reflects on the many other times he’s seen her so sad. Knowing he can’t leave her in this condition, he is determined to make it back for his interview. In a telling line, he says to his mother, “I can’t stay, I’m not saving anyone here”. He understands that him being able to truly create a better life for himself can help stable his family. Lindsay arrives at the motel to care for her mother while JD races back to New Haven for chance at real way out. It’s easy for viewers to see this as a selfish act, but in JD’s final narration, he explains that his future is his family’s shared legacy.

Hillbilly Elegy is an incredible story of a family that continuously suffered and eventually found their way to a brighter side. The final credits shared with the viewers where each of the family members are today – JD graduated law school, married Usha and living close to his family, Lindsay has three children and has been married to her boyfriend throughout the film for 22 years and Bev is working, healthy and sober. Although an entertaining film and showcased an amazing performance by Glenn Close, I believe Hillbilly Elegy missed the mark on this story. In my opinion, the film fed into the dramatics of Bev’s radical behaviors rather than completely humanizing her. I have read a couple reviews for this film and critics believe that this film may have tried too hard to have Oscar-worthy scenes. Although I enjoyed the film and will recommend people to watch it, I do see where this idea comes from. 

Hillbilly Elegy can be streamed on Netflix.

Movie Poster / Flickering Myth


Golden Globes:

Best Supporting Actress – Glenn Close

Screen Actors Guild Award:

Outstanding Performance by Female Actor in a Lead Role – Amy Adams

Outstanding Performance by Female Actor in Supporting Role – Glenn Close

Critics’ Choice Movie Award:

Best Supporting Actress – Glenn Close 

Best Makeup

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