Maybe because of all the bad reviews I read beforehand, I was honestly not expecting much when I sat down with my husband the other night to finally watch Hillbilly Elegy, now airing on Netflix. Ron Howard’s film depiction of the best-selling book by JD Vance is getting panned all over the place, mostly from the progressive reviewers but even by conservatives, with some critics urging people not to watch it at all.
In fact, it has apparently made the list of one of the worst reviewed movies of 2020. One reviewer described it as a “made for TV movie,” while grudgingly acknowledging the Oscar-worthy performances by Glenn Close, who literally transforms herself into Vance’s Mawmaw, as well as by Amy Adams, who plays Vance’s troubled mother, Beverly.
Although there are certainly moments in the film that feel more “made for TV” than the big screen, I would suggest that a viewer’s reaction to the film largely depends on that person’s experience of family life. If you grew up in a world where single motherhood, family drama, and addiction are rampant, then it is much easier to see Netflix’s Hillbilly Elegy as shining a much-needed spotlight on the family dysfunction that can derail individuals and their communities.
I say this after watching Hillbilly Elegy with my husband, who has a few things in common with Vance. Like Vance, he was raised mostly by his grandmother, who he called Nan, and she, like Vance’s Mawmaw, was a force to be reckoned with despite her tiny stature. Also similar to Vance’s mother, my husband’s mother was on track to become a nurse, when a series of poor relationship and life decisions, including drugs, derailed her plans. And like Vance, my husband was caught in the crosshairs of his mother’s relationship merry-go-round as a young child, as one man after another entered and exited their lives.
When my husband was about four years old, one of these men left so many marks on his little backside from a midnight beating that when Nan discovered the bruises, she sent her son and teenage grandson over to her daughter’s duplex to give the husband a “talking to” and to let her daughter know her little boy would not be coming back. Shortly after that incident, Nan legally adopted him. My husband credits Nan’s swift response to what she saw happening in her daughter’s life with saving him and putting him on the road to a better life than he would have had otherwise.
Given my husband’s background, I was curious to see his reaction to the film, which goes back and forth between flashbacks to Vance’s teenage years growing up in Ohio to his life as a second-year law student at Yale, where he is in the middle of interviewing for a job that could help pay his increasing tuition. The tension mounts as Vance gets a call from his sister, who asks him to come home because his mother has overdosed on heroin and is in the hospital. He leaves for an emergency trip home that leads him to reflect on his traumatic childhood with his mother and his beloved Mawmaw.
Both of us were deeply moved by the film, but it had a greater effect on my husband. A few times during the movie, we hit pause, just to exchange knowing looks or to digest a particularly emotional scene — and the movie is full of them, often back-to-back as though the film-makers were trying to squeeze in as much family trauma as possible.
Like when Vance’s mother is screaming in the street with bleeding arms and resisting being put into an ambulance, and Mawmaw grabs JD’s face and orders him, “don’t look at that, you look at me!” Or that moment when teenage JD proudly hands his grandmother the math test he finally aced, and she responds with a simple “keep it up” but takes the test into the living room to admire it longer. Or when a drug addicted Beverly, sobbing and shaking on the bed, reaches out for her son’s hand, and he reluctantly takes it.
My husband admitted later that he went upstairs to the bathroom and “sobbed” after the movie was over, something I was surprised to hear since he does not cry easily. When I pressed him about which scene moved him the most, he said: “The one where Mawmaw tells JD to get his things because he’s coming to live with her,” adding: “It reminded me of Nan rescuing me.”
Critics, of course, are not impressed by the family dynamics portrayed in the film, instead complaining about how poor people and their problems are depicted. One reviewer for The Atlantic, who advised people to “maybe not watch the movie,” wrote:
The film and book need Appalachia to be poor, broken, and dirty, because they depend on us believing that the mountains are somewhere we want Vance to escape. They need to frame poverty as a moral failing of individuals — as opposed to systems — because they have to imply that something about Vance’s character allowed him to get away from his hillbilly roots.
But she, like so many other critics of the film, seems to miss the point: Vance is not trying to escape his Hillbilly roots; he is trying to escape the family dysfunction that nearly engulfed him.
The Vances are presented as a representative family, but what exactly do they represent? A class? A culture? A place? A history? The louder they yell, the less you understand — about them or the world they inhabit.
But some of us do understand the world they inhabit and what Vance’s family represents, and it goes beyond poverty or Appalachia or a political agenda. When my husband and I watched, we were not shocked by the profanity or violence or drug abuse or even the screaming (in fact, we witnessed many of these behaviours in our own families, although probably not to the same degree).
The film version of JD Vance’s family can help us to better appreciate those people in our lives who step up and believe in us enough to push us toward a better path.
When asked about the negative reviews, Amy Adams, who portrays Vance’s mother Beverly in the film, said: “Whether it be generational trauma, whether it be just examining where we come from to understand where we’re going and who we are, I think the universality of the themes of the movie far transcend politics.”
Adams is right. Regardless of where you are from, so much of Vance’s story is a common human experience, one that transcends class or region or even income. And the film gives us a peek into what it looks like inside a fragile family that is dealing with the repercussions of chronic father-absence, poverty, violence, and drug and alcohol abuse.
The minute Hillbilly Elegy ended, I texted my mom and urged her to watch it as soon as she could with my 17-year-old nephew, Jarrett. Like my husband, Jarrett’s family history is similar to Vance’s: his own mother struggles with drug addiction and has taken her kids through a relationship-go-round, which is why he has lived full-time with my mom since he was about 13. While his life with my mom is not perfect and they struggle to make ends meet, in his grandmother’s home he has found the unconditional love, faith, and stability he needs to overcome the trauma he experienced as a child.
Reviewing the film for Vulture, Sarah Jones asks a great question: “Who is Netflix’s Hillbilly Elegy for?” Hillbilly Elegy is not a film for the progressive critics who are urging their readers to avoid it. It’s not really a film for the elites, many who were privileged to have been raised in intact families. Instead, I would argue that Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy is for people like my husband and my nephew — and so many others who grew up in broken families and whose experiences are often misunderstood or completely ignored and rarely shown on screen.
By focusing on Vance’s family trauma and his grandmother’s efforts to help him overcome it, the film can inspire young people in similar circumstances to work hard to find a way out, and it can remind us all that it often only takes one supportive person to make a difference in the life of an at-risk child. And just maybe, the film version of JD Vance’s family can help us to better appreciate those people in our lives who step up and believe in us enough to push us toward a better path.
If there is one universal take-away from the movie version of Hillbilly Elegy, it is how family history shapes us, for better or for worse — and maybe a little bit of both.
Just as Vance experiences in the film, we can’t really escape our family roots, including the dysfunction and drama that many of us have experienced, but with the right people to believe in us and support us, we can learn from our past and find our way toward building stronger families that will heal our communities.
Alysse ElHage is Editor of the Institute for Family Studies blog where this article first appeared. Republished with permission.