Based on a memoir by former Marine and Yale Law student J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of Vance’s family, a sprawling clan who live in southern Ohio and also have deep roots in Kentucky. The movie focuses on both Vance’s childhood and his formative years as an adult, with the emphasis on the impact of two women on his life: his troubled, drug-addicted mother Bev (Amy Adams) and his stern, no-nonsense, foul-mouthed grandmother Mamaw (Glenn Close).
Directed by Ron Howard, the film is clearly meant to be empathetic to these Appalachian folks even as it studiously avoids any hint of the divisive politics that have set blue states and red states apart for decades. But that evasion robs the movie of any context or wider background commentary. Perhaps this is done as a way to make it more palatable to general audiences, but it nevertheless giving Hillbilly Elegy a TV movie patina that it never quite shakes.
What we get, however, is still a fairly absorbing family drama: J.D. (played as a child by Owen Asztalos and as an adult by Gabriel Basso, who look eerily alike) starts out living with his mom and older sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett) while Mamaw and the more subdued Papaw (Bo Hopkins) are always hovering around the edges of their lives. Bev is both a free spirit and possibly Bipolar, given to sudden bursts of seething rage or self-pity as quickly as warm outpourings of love and good cheer. Her efforts to make a decent life for her kids are sabotaged by her willingness to attach herself to unsavory men, with Mamaw and the kids always picking up the pieces.
As Bev moves herself and the kids in with another man in yet another new house, J.D. begins to act out, veering dangerously close to outright disobedience and, with his pack of friends, criminal behavior. That’s when Mamaw steps in and forcefully suggests that he live with her–and some much needed tough love.
The movie keeps shifting between this scenario and another set years later, when J.D. is attending Yale Law and hoping to land an internship with a Washington law firm so that he and girlfriend Usha (an underutilized Frieda Pinto) can also remain together. But right on the verge of an important interview, J.D. gets a call from his sister: their mom has relapsed into drug use and is in the hospital. Can J.D. come home right away?
That part of the plot seemed to set up a false conflict–couldn’t J.D. explain that his mom was seriously ill and, you know, do the interview by phone?–but nevertheless he drives home 10 hours one way to help his sister (who’s now happily married with three kids) and try one more time to get his mother back on track. But he only has a few hours before he has to drive all the way back for his interview or risk losing the position. Will he give up his dreams or stay to clean up his mom’s mess yet again?
The soap opera-ish aspects of Hillbilly Elegy doesn’t take away from the strength of the individual performances and the sense of empathy toward the characters, even if some of the deeper roots of their problems are skated over or barely discussed. Amy Adams continues to prove why she is one of the best actresses of her generation, giving Bev a complexity and emotional rawness that exposes the vulnerable, wounded person underneath. Close’s performance is larger, but she too gets past the broad strokes of Mamaw to show us flashes of the strong, secretly compassionate woman under the tough-as-nails exterior. Basso and Asztalos are also good at embodying how quickly white male rage can consume someone even as the movie’s depiction of Vance struggles against his own identity.
We never really get a clear picture of just why drug use and poverty are so rampant in the lives of Vance, his family and their community–part of which is the peculiar socioeconomics of the region that the film has chosen to ignore.
In real life, the author of the source material is a Republican venture capitalist and self-described social conservative, but has spoken out against GOP policies that hurt the working class. So it’s strange that so much of that is omitted from his family’s story. Yet it seems that Howard wanted to tell a simpler narrative of familial bonds and how they can both be a source of strength and strife. He succeeds to some extent, but could have made an elegy to so much more.
Hillbilly Elegy premieres on Netflix and in select theaters on Nov. 24.