Everyone has one relative whose presence is so large when they cease to exist, the hole left behind is irreplaceable and heartbreaking. In many cultures it’s the Grandmother who keeps the family together. For me, it was Great Aunt Mama Cleo and for JD Vance it was his Mamaw. In this rescue and survival story, Hillbilly Elegy (based on the novel of the same name) chronicles the life of Vance from the Appalachia mountains to becoming a Yale law student grappling with family history, Appalachian values and the American dream.
Not being from Kentucky, and hailing from the Show-Me-State of Missouri, just as in Southern families, midwestern folks value family above all else – even if there is a family member whose habitual behavior stands to tear that family apart. JD’s Mom ev, despite her best efforts, could not and would not kick her struggle with addiction often playing upon the empathy of her son. At some point, you have to choose your own happiness and survival over family.
Glenn Close (Mamaw) and Amy Adams (Bev) turn in challengingly raw, real, not holds barred performances in roles I have never seen either one of them inhabit onscreen. Both were absolutely fantabulous to watch. With lines like ‘”..dumb as a bag of hair” and “…I wouldn’t spit on her if her hair were on fire” are one of the reasons the screenplay is very entertaining. But, its moments like Mamaw in the car with JD after he throws a calculator out of the window and the scene where Bev beats the tar out of him in the car that illustrate how the realities and actions of one person can change the trajectory of your life for good or bad.
The most important scenes in the film take place in a car. The aforementioned scene and the one where Bev sits in the car as Vance attempts to take her to rehab one last time strike an emotional chord that haunts me to this day.
Some may screen this film and be annoyed by what they see as a cliche’ about mountain folk and poor folk. The truth is nothing is a cliche’ when a family is trying to survive the best way they know how. Only someone that comes from that sort of upbringing would understand the statement this film and the book before it is trying to convey. Either you slip into the role your family tries to set up for or you carve out your own path. JD Vance was able to accomplish the later.
Directed by Ron Howard, Hillbilly Elegy is beautifully shot and captures a story that may not be every American story, but is one I wholeheartedly connected to as it was not too far unlike the life I led as a young African-American girl in Missouri. Judge for yourself while streaming it now on Netflix.