“Hillbilly Elegy” Movie Review


Standout performances by Amy Adams and Glenn Close lead a game ensemble in “Hillbilly Elegy”, based on the 2016 memoir by J.D. Vance, and directed by Ron Howard.  The film arrives as arguably the first real Oscar contender of the now elongated awards season courtesy of a near shuttered film industry and also with a bit of supposed controversy since the true story depicted apparently falls along the conservative lines of Vance and has been automatically panned in some circles.  See the film and you’ll likely never figure out what all the noise was about, since the narrative falls in line with several notable family dramas, “August: Osage County” immediately comes to mind, and the impoverished settings of rural Kentucky and Ohio bring forth similar situations seen in films like “Winter’s Bone”.

     Directing from Vanessa Taylor’s adaptation of Vance’s book, Howard tells the story of a family whose roots have created an unwavering source of pride throughout the generations, much of which is instilled by the ever-present Mamaw (Glenn Close), the family’s matriarch, who despite enduring past abuses from her husband, Papaw (Bo Hopkins), still manages to ensure the ideals she deems important are passed on to future generations.  Something that becomes crucial when her own daughter is unable to cope with the responsibilities that come with raising two children.

     Through the use of flashbacks and moving from a time frame in the late 1990s to one in 2011, J.D. is shown as both an unsure teenager played by Owen Asztalos, as well as a financially struggling Yale law student played by Gabriel Basso.  And given the circumstances of his upbringing, you may be surprised by that last part.  Kids from low income neighborhoods aren’t supposed to succeed right?  Perhaps that’s the problem some people are having with this story.  It doesn’t fit the narrative for those who are disadvantaged and simply give up the dream for a successful life, blaming failure on circumstance rather than their own inability to stay out of trouble.  As is always the case, key decisions during your formative years will have a big impact on your future.  But not all of those decisions are made by you.

     There’s a scene during one of the 2011 sequences that has J.D. attending a dinner with partners of various law firms who will be choosing candidates for lucrative summer internships.  And with his financial aid still leaving a massive tuition shortfall, being chosen for one of these positions is crucial in order to pay for the next semester.  Knowing that, you would think J.D. would be like many of his classmates and do everything possible to be the person they are looking for.  But when one of the partners makes a comment that J.D. deems offensive towards his family, he stands up for himself, putting one of the decision makers in his place and creating an awkward vibe at the table.  Of course, it is those kinds of qualities the best employers are looking for.  J.D. showed toughness and a clear willingness to stand on his own principles, even when doing so wouldn’t exactly indicate you know the room.

     And how were these principles instilled in him?  Certainly not from his struggling mother, Bev (Amy Adams), who finds herself frequently unemployed and between men because of an opioid addiction that threatens to ruin the lives of J.D. and his sister, Lindsay (Haley Bennett).  With J.D. being younger, and thus more impressionable, it becomes clear after a series of mishaps that Mamaw needs to take over raising him before he makes a mistake he won’t recover from.  Really, that’s the beauty of the story, as we see his chain smoking grandmother, who herself now a widow barely has enough money to feed herself, let alone her grandson, guide J.D. through the initial stages of learning how to become the best version of himself, and to the point where we see him in 2011 as a responsible and caring young adult with a bright future.

     The turning point of all of this is particularly heartfelt, as we see J.D. begin to understand the value of money and that everything is earned not given.  Soon he begins doing chores around the house on his own and you see how the tough love from Mamaw has made a lasting impression on his work ethic, which as we know will become crucial later.  This is a guy, after all, who went on to become a U.S. Marine and serve in Iraq.  He then attended Ohio State, graduating and subsequently getting into Yale Law School.  People who come from these parts aren’t supposed to enjoy such a high level of accomplishment.  Or so we are told.  Mamaw didn’t allow for silly excuses or for any perceived shortcomings as a result of J.D.’s immediate family’s situation to stop him from achieving his goal of standing next to the very best and brightest in the country.  But as a youngster, the key is to have that person who is willing to take the time to ensure you get the right message.  Mamaw, for all her flaws, was that person.  There when J.D. needed her the most. GRADE: B+