Synopsis: Grown grandson of hillbillies considers his youth and his way out of poverty.
Hillbilly Elegy is based on J.D. Vance’s 2013 memoir in which he reflects on growing up in Ohio as the socio-economically disadvantaged son of a drug-addicted mother. Through study and hard work, he graduated from Ohio State University, served in the U.S. Marines and went on to graduate from Yale Law School. He credits his grandmother, who grew up in rural Kentucky, for keeping him on the straight and narrow.
More importantly, this is the story of two young actors supporting the awards seeking of two established actresses. Owen Asztalos plays a young teen J.D. while Gabriel Basso is the twenty-something J.D. Amy Adams is J.D.’s mom, Bev and Glenn Close is his grandmother, Mamaw.
Ms. Adams’ turn as Bev can be seen as a continuation of her performance in Sharp Objects as a very disturbed person. This time she is a very disturbed person who is also a screaming, fighting banshee. Sometimes director Ron Howard even shows her furious flailing in slo-mo to really let her fightin’ hillbilly ways sink in for the viewer.
Glenn Close is not fooling around anymore. She has the unfortunate distinction of being the most nominated actress for an Academy Award without a win. On her seventh nomination, it looked like she would be walking to the podium for The Wife, but victory was snatched from her by Olivia Colman (The Favourite). Just glancing at the screenplay Glenn would see that playing an old foul-mouthed hillbilly grandma/ Mamaw, could position her well in awards season. Adding to the movie’s drama, Ms. Close is transformed away from her usual sophisticate look with a frizzy grey wig, unfashionable glasses and well-worn t-shirts. Plus plenty of cigarettes to gesticulate with or let dangle form her lips!
Young J.D. occasionally sasses his Mamaw or is lazy and that gives her a good chance to give him a dose of tough love. She warns him against becoming a loser and tells him that the only way out is with a good education. And she inveighs upon him to understand the importance of family “‘Cause family is the only thing that means a goddamn.” As if only the hill folk can truly understand the importance of family. Sadly, in her youth Mamaw had a different understanding of family when she doused a drunkenly passed out Papaw with an accelerant of some kind and lit him on fire.
Hillbilly Elegy begins at Yale University where law student J.D. flirts with his girlfriend, Usha (Freida Pinto) a fellow student. She has already landed a summer internship in D.C. and he hopes to garner a job in the same city during upcoming interviews. He attends a dinner meet & greet with employers and feels flummoxed by the silverware at the table. The lawyers seem pretty snobbish and J.D. hopes it doesn’t hurt his chances that he’s not from some important, wealthy family. Don’t they understand that while they were out sailing at Cape Cod, he was in the Marines preserving their way of life?!
Ok! This needs to be said: J.D. Vance is not a hillbilly. ( Loosely defined as a person who grew up in the rural expanse of Appalachia and who is short on occupational and educational opportunities. ) He did not grow up in a little “holler.” His grandparents were hillbillies who moved to work at Armco Steel in Middletown, Ohio (about 35 miles from Cincinnati, which has a metro population area of more than 2 million). Vance does visit his hill kin in the summer. Imagine implying that you are an authority on Sonora, Mexico because your grandparents are from there, but you’ve lived your whole life and gone to school in San Diego.
In fact, it seems that J.D. must talk up his hillbilly heritage instead of the humdrum story that he’s from the Cincinnati area because one of the law partners at the student dinner asks J.D. what it’s like to return home and encounter rednecks again. The snooty lawyers pause from correctly using their cutlery to laugh. J.D. explodes and makes a good impression by spitting out that his mother was salutatorian of her high school class and smarter than all of them.
Remember, the film hammers us again and again, J.D. is a HILLBILLY and he goes to YALE. Uh oh, that night Hillbilly Yalie gets a call from his older sister, Lindsay (Haley Bennett, always good) in Ohio that their mom is hospitalized because she overdosed. He says that he will leave Connecticut ASAP, drive to Ohio and back in less than forty eight hours to interview for summer jobs. When J.D. phones his girlfriend in transit, she offers to go in his stead and help out. He rebuffs her offer by yelling: My mom overdosed on heroin! Then, because no one else has known troubles, she faints.
Kidding, she’s just speechless. Later J.D. calls her back to apologize and talks to her about his family’s legacy of poverty. She confides that her father come to the U.S. with nothing. He ignores that and gets back to his story of Mamaw, Papaw and hillbilly-ism. Finally his girlfriend frets that he has too far to drive in a weekend, but he reminds her that as a former Marine, he has special tactical driving skills.
Once J.D. arrives at the hospital, he sees that his mom is her usual cantankerous self, bickering with a nurse. He waylays a doctor and tells him that his mom will need a rehab placement, but has no insurance. The doctor grimaces and says there’s nothing he can do. Oh, no. But Amy’s grey wig is so unkempt and she has such dark circles painted under her eyes! J.D. tells his mom that he will do what he can which has her opining that his Yale education doesn’t seem to be worth spit.
Later, at his sister’s house, J.D. calls rehab facilities looking for an opening. His sis brings him a fried baloney sandwich. Bet they don’t have this at Yale, she says. In between bites of sandwich, he has time to reflect on his family life. Helpfully, the director shows us flashbacks of scenes we saw just half an hour ago. It’s like a kaleidoscope: Mamaw saying We’re hill people, Amy Adams/Bev slapping her daughter, pummeling J.D., a parade of his mom’s rando boyfriends, her shrieking and scrabbling across the floor for a lost syringe of heroin. And we see a really low moment when J.D. offers to buy his mom dinner and she asks for Funyuns. Oh, the humanity!
I haven’t read Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, but the film leaves a lot unanswered. Is Vance saying that hillbillies have lost their way –relying on welfare and drugs? Did his mom become an addict because of her hillbilly heritage? Or was it because of the brawls she witnessed between Mamaw and Papaw? Maybe she had an undiagnosed mental illness? Or maybe, as Mamaw says to J.D.: She just stopped tryin’.
I can’t answer the above questions, but we can check up on how the actors portraying J.D. did in supporting Glenn Close and Amy Adams… Young J.D., Owen Asztalos, does a fine job absorbing Amy’s blows and crying at Mamaw’s side. Older J.D., Gabriel Basso acquits himself well as he alternately grapples with his mom and advocates for her —This is my family! he yells at a rehab receptionist.
As awards season heats up, Close might be recognized for a layered performance in a flawed film. While I expect Adams will be passed by for the overload of histrionics. But she does deserve credit for stamina and skill in fake fighting and roller skating with bravado.
P.P.S. Vance’s memoir and the movie have been hit with criticism: that it is better viewed as one person’s experiences and opinions, but it is not a scholarly analysis of Appalachian culture. For more info, check out the book Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy or the article“Unlearning the Lessons of Hillbilly Elegy.”
Movie Loon’s Movie Review Shortcut:
Cut to the Chase: Oscar bait gone wrong. The film manages to both romanticize and condemn Appalachian culture.
Humor Highlight: Amy Adams’ Bev roller skating through hospital corridors when she is supposed to be working.