Hillbilly Elegy

Photo credit: Lacey Terrell/Netflix

JD Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy has been turned into a Netflix movie directed by Ron Howard,  the competent — but too eager to satisfy the mainstream moviegoer — auteur of such popular films as Splash and Apollo 13, both starring the crowd-pleasing Tom Hanks.

Unfortunately, the politics and sociological elements of Hillbilly have been stripped from Vance’s candid treatise about the induced poverty created by multinational corporations building and then abandoning thriving American communities, which they built by providing gainful employment — modern day versions of company towns — for cheaper labor and less regulation abroad.  

What Vanessa Taylor’s screenplay leaves us with is a dysfunctional family made so by addiction and diminished hope but with little explanation as to the macroeconomic  context of the matter. What’s more, we are left to conclude that the strength of one familial relationship is the safety net from which JD Vance is able to bounce to success as a Yale Law School graduate and bestselling author.

Not only is this a trite and incomplete portrait of the issues broached in Vance’s book, we are too easily lost in the shrill melodrama of the situation and are left missing the larger picture of this socioeconomic dynamic. Instead, “Hillbilly” becomes a story of an individual who succeeds through sheer force of will, along with the power of an unyieldingly grandma, known by the Vance family as Mawmaw.

The production is nearly but not quite redeemed by the chameleon-like performances of Glenn Close as Mawmaw, the once promising but now decaying character of Bev Vance (JD’s mother) as embodied by Amy Adam, the sturdy and convincing portrayal of JD by Gabriel Basso, and the remarkably believable Owen Asztalos as the child JD (much of the movie takes place in flashbacks). 

At one hour and fifty-six minutes, Hillbilly Elegy is too much in terms of being overwrought with dysfunctional characters and too little with regard to explaining the source of this discontent. 

Hillbilly Elegy is currently streaming on Netflix.