It's difficult to know where to begin with Hillbilly Elegy. In one sense, we have to consider the context of the individuals this story is about and in another we must accept this specific facet to be the truth of their lives. How does one reconcile that author J.D. Vance's memoir on which this film is based is both undoubtedly a vivid recollection of his own childhood as well as a romanticized portrait of a place in America where the pride of having been left behind has a lot to do with the refusal to move forward? The conflicted feelings about how and what the film is representing naturally extend to the DNA of the film itself as, in the opening moments, Gabriel Basso's Vance tells us how much he loved visiting rural Kentucky when he was a boy despite being raised in the rust belt of Ohio; it was the memories he made while visiting the Blue Grass State that he was most fond of. The film quickly contradicts these kind words with a scene where a thirteen year-old Vance (Owen Asztalos) encounters a band of local bullies before being rescued by his local relatives in Kentucky. Vance is obviously sentimental about these moments and has therefore made them more appealing in his memory, but how far does the gaze of these rose-tinted glasses reach? Depending on the author's age at the time of the events being described, what circumstances are being missed and what details are being diminished? How much is Vance actually misremembering? There are a lot of questions left unanswered that director Ron Howard doesn't feel the need to address as he largely focuses on the core family dynamic at the heart of Vance's story, but what's riveting about the execution of Hillbilly Elegy is that it feels the need to explain as much as it does chronicle the reasons these people have ended up the way they have. There is this notion that because they really are well-meaning people underneath their poor life choices that they deserve some type of exception when it comes to discussing said shortcomings. Aside from the complicated cultural discussion around the "hillbilly condition" though, and how sorry viewers should be made to feel for these individuals who can't get out of their own way, Howard and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water) smartly focus on the prevalent themes around how much community and family genuinely mattered to Vance while growing up in these undeniably unforgiving environments and the complexities of the problems he faced and deals with well into his adult life due to this jagged support system.       
A young J.D. Vance (Owen Asztalos) chooses to live with his Mamaw (Glenn Close) after his mother proves unfit.
© Netflix

Alas, while much of Hillbilly Elegy may be a story told in a vacuum-like environment the validity of said perspective will not be refuted by an outsider (though I am from Arkansas and can attest to generalizations of a place easily being proved incorrect) who has only read articles noting the layers upon layers of conflict with the author's worldview or lack thereof. Instead, Hillbilly Elegy will be viewed and assessed as any movie should be meaning two of the biggest factors taken into account will be how strong the author's voice is and how well the thesis it decides to zero in on is conveyed. In this regard, Howard's first full-fledged feature since his third Dan Brown adaptation in 2016 has him approaching the source material in a very Ron Howard-like way. This is to say that the filmmaker simply views Vance's story as a rather straightforward family drama that conveys a powerful story of self-actualization despite the hurdles ones heritage might throw at them. Howard undoubtedly also liked the idea that the material is ripe with performance opportunities for those the Academy has shunned for far too long as well. One might be remiss to completely dismiss the film as cloying awards fodder, but there's definitely a reason the casting director reached out to Glenn Close and Amy Adams specifically, but more on them later. As the protagonist of our story, we are introduced to J.D. Vance - the character - in two separate timelines as the film parallels his journey at Yale and dealing with his mother's relapse due to heroin use with that of the childhood trauma that shaped who he's become and explains why he's made the choices he has as an adult. As mentioned, Gabriel Basso of Super 8 and The Kings of Summer portrays the older J.D. while Asztalos' younger version does most of the heavy lifting in terms of the narrative weight. The events depicted from Vance's youth that take place in the mid to late nineties are the moments that garner the more physical, guttural reactions simply out of plain human sympathy for any young, innocent child who is meant to deal with the incompetence of the adults around them oftentimes forcing them to be the most mature person in the room. While we spend more time with Asztalos' Vance though, we legitimately feel the exhaustion of Basso’s Vance as he's stripped of everything he has to offer including his dignity. Though we may spend more time with the younger Vance it is the burdens Basso's Vance carries with him that we feel more than anything else in the film.  

Vance was burdened by his family for as long as he can remember. Barely past puberty and his hard boiled Mamaw (Close in insanely heavy make-up, but stay for the end credits and you'll see it's not *all* for Oscar glory) more or less tells the young man that when she dies he’s the only one who will remain that is capable and strong-willed enough to take care of the rest of their family, namely Vance’s mother Beverly (Adams). In essence, this is very much about a grandmother who saves her grandson in the hope he might save her daughter. It's a lot to place on a pre-teen's shoulders, but of course this younger Vance doesn't fully comprehend the complications such a burden will entail until much later in life. Vance has an older sister, Lindsay (Haley Bennett, who will naturally be overshadowed yet deserves some mention as she's surprisingly effective in her minor role), who is old enough to be preoccupied with her boyfriends and doesn't recognize what this moment in time means to her little brother and how much it will impact his life moving forward. To be clear, while Close and Adams are being trotted out as the performers to take most notice of both women play more supporting roles in service of Vance's distillation of his own journey. The crux of the film is Vance returning home in an effort to - consciously or not - keep that promise he made to his Mamaw. What does one do when trying to break free of the bad choices that have plagued their family for years while understanding that absence is not an option and would most likely result in the ones you love collapsing in on themselves? Mamaw both needed Vance to succeed in ways no one else in their family had while also remaining close enough to be their safety net. As a result, Vance's arc largely deals in him working through these questions in order to convince himself he's not selfish for choosing his own successes, but while Vance's hardships are acknowledged, understood, and don't deserve to be discredited it becomes increasingly evident as the movie plays on that there isn't much to glean from these trials and tribulations besides the simple idea that if you work hard you can succeed no matter your circumstances. As was said earlier, very Ron Howard-like.  

Close's Mamaw has a few choice words for her daughter, Beverly (Amy Adams), in Ron Howard's Hillbilly Elegy.
© Netflix

Though it's not hard not to appreciate a movie that finds room to utilize Eagle-Eye Cherry's "Save Tonight," Hillbilly Elegy is a film that finds more momentum in its editing than it does the story it's telling or the themes it's relaying. Elegy is a word often times confused with eulogy and while they share certain sounds and expressions of grief and sorrow one is a deep reflection while the other is a more immediate piece of writing. Vance is correct to call his ruminations an elegy, but as far as the film adaptation goes a eulogy feels like the more appropriate verbiage. Not because Vance praises Appalachia or the people he knew there, but because it feels sudden in its assessment; an immediate reaction to a traumatizing experience rather than a serious reflection on what these life events meant and will mean for Vance moving forward. This is all to say that while Vance obviously knows his family better than anyone else, the characters of Mamaw and Beverly never come to feel like fully-realized or authentic people in the two hours the audience gets to know them. Adams is naturally reliable in her ability to create this shell of a woman who once was while having decided her only way out of her inherent hick reputation is to find a husband that can take her and her son away from it all. Because Beverly is such a fractured shell when she's introduced to viewers though, and only becomes more of one as time goes on it's difficult to see Adams' performance as anything more than a collection of instances that back-up Vance's claims that she was a shitty mother. Close certainly gets more of a fleshed out role in Mamaw as Vance clearly has an enormous amount of respect for this woman and the role she played in his life and therefore their dynamic is much stronger. Mamaw was the type of hillbilly who would correct you if you called Indians Native Americans. That's right, she would correct you by reverting back to referring to them as Indians and then say things like, "They're not magic just because they don't have microwaves." In other words, she was a relic of the past, yes - and a sometimes ugly one - but she was also the type of person that when shit got real you knew you could count on her. It is in the montage created out of the moments that show Mamaw's resilience and selflessness that Close earns her nomination. It's easy to knock the melodramatic aspects of Hillbilly Elegy, but by the same token one also has to then appreciate the rawness with which these people are presented. It would have been easy to add a certain sheen to the events recounted, but whether it be in Vance’s novel or Howard’s direction this story admittedly doesn’t steer away from the ugliness these characters both experienced and distributed.       

To return to the bigger contextual issues with Hillbilly Elegy though is to return to the concern that Vance has concocted a reality reflective only of his own image by using one-off personal experiences and unsubstantiated observations to make broad, sweeping accusations about an entire region of the country. So, there are two issues here in that not only has Vance perpetrated Appalachia as this mythic "out of time" place that avoids the present by refusing to look toward the future thus altering the perception of the region, but he has written a story with the intent of it being emblematic of how misunderstood these people are while not actually taking anyone else's existence into account. If this were solely an account of Vance's life that made no attempt to generalize an entire culture then okay, but as the story is meant to serve as being representative of what happens throughout this region then what we have here is more problematic. Vance complicates things further by painting a portrait of Appalachia that only views the prism of culture in the area through a single facet. This then begs the question of why the author feels a certain sympathy for the characters in his own story yet whose political leanings would suggest he's comfortable condemning claims of systemic racism. Of course, Vance is sympathetic to the "hillbilly" because he claims to know them - because they are his family, friends, and neighbors - whereas anyone who isn't white, holds progressive politics, cares about the environment, or is an LGBTQ individual does not exist in Vance's Appalachia. This "progressive" requirement of inclusion (translation: context is key) wouldn't even be as big a deal if Vance's story didn't attempt to make these broad rationalizations, but because compassion is afforded those asking for their actions to be pardoned until they have time to explain are the same people who marginalize minorities asking for the same type of grace yet Vance quickly dismisses them makes this a big damn deal. The existence of the titular "hillbillies" are meant to negate the idea that "white privilege" exists, but if nothing else Hillbilly Elegy actually makes it more clear that the level of hardship endured does not determine how much one is held back, but how much one is held back might in fact prove the necessary motivation to overcome those hardships; that is, unless history isn't on your side either in which case one might have to add a few extra things to that list of hardships.  

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