Let’s get to know the film by first breaking down the title, shall we? ‘Hillbilly Elegy.’ First, the film is from the James David, better known as J.D., Vance memoir of the same name.
Dictionary.com says that ‘Hillbilly’ is a term used to refer to a person from a backwoods or other remote area, especially from the mountains of the southern U.S. (sometimes used facetiously). ‘Elegy’ is a mournful, melancholy, or plaintive poem, especially a funeral song or a lament for the dead. So, this is a poem to the author’s ‘redneck’ roots.
Vance’s family is from Jackson, Kentucky, a, you guessed it, rural town. They later immigrated to Middletown, Ohio.
I think it’s safe to say he had heard the term Hillbilly used far too often when it came to his family. To further understand what that means, he’s from the ‘Rust Belt.’ The term Rust Belt has been created for the U.S. regions that are in sharp decline or even far beyond that by now. Once thriving industrial factories have been abandoned, and buildings are ‘rusted’ over from neglect. It’s sad to say that those towns are growing at a frightening rate. Having said all of that, don’t fear. I’m not making a political commentary on the state of our country. This is merely a review of a movie that touches on those subjects.
The story starts in Jackson in 1997. Voice over of J.D. tells us that he feels more at home in Jackson than in any other place because he spent his summers there. Jackson is where his kin or ‘his people’ hail. We meet him at the end of one of those summers when they’re about to leave. The family members are all very close and will do anything to have the others back. J.D. likes that about them. He wonders why they ever moved from Jackson in the first place. That answer can be found in the fact that his grandmother had a child at the age of thirteen. They originally moved north to Ohio to ‘get the hell out of dodge.’
Most of the story is told in a series of flashbacks. Everything is from his point of view. This does get a bit monotonous, but knowing where the family is from, I liked the authenticity of certain words and phrases and how they’re spoken. Mostly coming from memories of J.D.’s youth, presenting it in this fashion is entirely reasonable.
I must mention that hearing J.D., played by actors Gabriel Basso and Owen Asztalos, call Glenn Close’ Mamaw,’ (the most peculiar yet charming way to say ‘grandmother’), was alone worth watching the movie. Close also looked exactly like the woman! You’ll find this out at the end of the film when you see some real videos and photographs.
Mamaw is a fabulous character. She’s tough as nails and a bit of a brute. She’s done it all, seen it all, and no one is going to ever get away with anything with her around.
Whatever the struggle with his maternal grandmother might be, the biggest problem in J.D.’s life happens to be his mother. Her name is Bev, played by Amy Adams. Toward the beginning, we find out she’s in the hospital, again, for overdosing on heroin. She’s always getting into trouble. She sees life as miserable and prefers to be tossed about on waves of drugs rather than face her responsibilities. Though she’s harsh, at least Mamaw is always there. We watch her discipline her young grandson while still getting involved with her grown daughters’ life at the age of retirement. Bev isn’t the mother she wants to be. In fact, she doesn’t seem to have the innate abilities it takes to be the mother at all.
Trying to understand why this is, is the real challenge for the audience. We learn a lot about her character upfront, but there’s nothing really fascinating to keep us hooked all the way through. The beginning is superb, but the film becomes predictable. On occasion, we meet new characters, mainly when J.D. is older, but they’re neglected by continuing to go back to a time that has been, to a large extent, already covered. In any case, everyone loves an underdog story, am I right? Ultimately, this is an entertaining tale as long as you’re okay with constantly being interrupted with backstory. The grandmother/grandson relationship is exceptional.
Love, hate, addiction, understanding, pain, and promise are all at one point covered in this one hour and fifty six-minute narrative. With Amy Adams leading the parade of outstanding performances by a female, she and Glenn Close march through this biographical sketch with grand style. We’re sure to see at least one of them on stage this coming award season.
Director: Ron Howard
Writers: Vanessa Taylor (screenplay), J.D. Vance (book)
Stars: Amy Adams, Haley Bennett, Gabriel Basso and Glenn Close
Running Time: 1h 56m