Escaping one’s background for a better future is a common theme and one perhaps you also have experienced. Director Ron Howard brings one such story to life; Kentucky-born attorney J.D. Vance. Vanessa Taylor adapts the novel written by Vance to take us to a small town in Southern Ohio where Vance grew up amidst poverty, drug abuse, and lack of education. It’s a familiar looking town—one that typifies much of America. Director Ron Howard navigates the muddy waters of life with Gabriel Basso portraying Vance as he attempts to not only keep his head above water, but breathe in a new world no matter how strong the family current pulls him out to sea.
We meet the younger version of J.D. (Owen Asztalos) as he attends a family reunion in the “hollows” of Jackson, Kentucky. This kid receives the lion’s share of bullying not only from the nearby kids, but his own family. It’s the school of hard knocks. Living is tough. Jobs are scarce, and poverty is pervasive. But we quickly see that J.D.’s different. He has a heart of gold as he saves a turtle with a cracked shell, but the harshness of his environment is seen as his mom, Bev (Amy Adams) and tough, foul-mouthed grandmother, Mamaw (Glenn Close) cut one another with their razor-sharp words.
This raw and unrefined foundation sets the tone for J.D.’s upbringing as we get a brief glimpse of J.D.’s fractured family life in Middletown, Ohio–a town representative of every dying blue collar town. We fast forward to see that the caring and intelligent young man has escaped his past as he is in the final year of law school at Yale. His bright future is evident; he’s got a girlfriend and promising interviews for clerkships. But, of course, he can’t totally sever the ties that bind him and he is called home to intervene with his mother and her addiction.
“Hillbilly Elegy” allows us to step into J.D.’s shoes, if only for a short time, to feel the intrinsic struggle of family love and obligation as it thwarts his desire to move forward. It’s a classic tale of overcoming the station of life in which we were born, leaving only the strongest and most resilient to succeed.
The story is told in a non-linear form as we flash back to pivotal points in J.D.’s life. These moments give us insight into J.D.’s upbringing as it delves into Bev’s failings and Mamaw’s regrets. We better understand the dynamics among the characters in this family where everything presents as an obstacle to climb over until most give up.
Basso gives us a strong performance as J.D., a young man who isn’t quite confident or comfortable in his own skin yet. On the surface, he’s strong, but inside, he’s constantly focused on his inadequacies and lack of experiences that most Ivy Leaguers have. His choices are sometimes cringe-worthy, but of particular importance is his exchange with his future employers as he explains and almost defends his upbringing. It is at this point that we find a true sense of empathy with J.D., conflicted by his own thoughts and behaviors.
Howard has a cast that most directors could only dream of with Adams and Close as supporting actors in this film. Adams portrays Bev with a gruff but loving hue while she wrestles the dark demons of addiction. However, it is Close who at first is all but recognizable, that is the highlight of this film. Yes, costuming and prosthetics create a different outward appearance, but it is her body language—posture, walk, reactions—that give Mamaw that intimidating yet beleaguered persona. She has plenty of opportunities to shine in this film as she truly is the matriarch of the family and Close takes full advantage of them while never pushing the envelope of believability. Her life, a series of errors with heart, help place focus on J.D.’s ability to see and reach for a better future. Of course, Close also has some classically creative lines like “I wouldn’t spit on her ass if her guts were on fire” that will make your jaw drop as you chuckle.
“Hillbilly Elegy” has a familiar feel, especially if you weren’t raised in the city and didn’t have access to all “the best.” This family is in every town and this town is in every state. It’s a slice of life and one man’s story of finding himself as he reclaims his background, better understanding who he is and where he came from.
Howard always finds a story that has heart, but this time he’s found a story that is the heart of America. While the term “hillbilly” is one that denotes a negative tone, the title of the film is of appreciation for it. Howard makes it clear that this is a story that is representative of many; we all strive to be better and do better, but we cannot forget our past and our roots. With eloquent performances, particularly from Close, it’s a story that will resonate with many.
Now streaming on Netflix.