“Hillbilly Elegy” not really worth watching

Written By Jordyn Hronec, Editor-in-Chief

1.5/5 Globes

Stream on Netflix

Run time: 115 mins


The film “Hillbilly Elegy,” directed by Ron Howard and based off of the memoir of the same name by J.D. Vance, was released to Netflix on Nov. 24, 2020. The film stars big names, like Glenn Close and Amy Adams, and is clearly looking for some Academy Award representation. However, the film fails to live up to any hype that its cast may provide on several levels.

The film tells the story of J.D. Vance himself, growing up in Middletown, Ohio with his mother, Bev (Adams), sister, Lindsay, and grandmother (Close). The film follows J.D. as he grows up and strives for a “better life,” eventually going to law school at Yale University.

At first, the film seems to be an honest portrayal of life in the Rust Belt, showing the importance of family and loyalty, but also showing issues, such as substance abuse, that affects many.

But the film’s main message, that working and studying hard will eventually become an exit ticket for anyone looking to escape generational poverty and make it to an Ivy League school, is incredibly out of touch, and honestly, insulting.

J.D., the main character, is encouraged throughout his childhood to study, get good grades and focus on school if he wants to find “success,” which is otherwise known as escaping the poverty of where he and his family are from. All the while, he is enduring abuse from his mother, Bev, who is portrayed by Amy Adams in an alarmingly unhinged performance. The film is incredibly close in unraveling its own logic, repeatedly pointing out that Bev was “second in her class” in high school, and yet, she is stuck struggling to make ends meet for her children, whose birth was part of the reason why she could not go to college. 

This film places incredible responsibility on the impoverished individual, blaming poor people and their choices. It absolutely fails to target the systems in place in this country that are designed to keep poor people poor. 

There is no mention of capitalism and its pitfalls. For example, throughout the movie, Bev slips deeper and deeper into drug addiction. But the film blames Bev and her choices for this, portraying her and her abuse as a burden on her adult children, rather than, perhaps examining the predatory practices of narcotics companies that ensure that impoverished people fall addicted to their products so that they can turn a profit. 

Of course, Bev’s character is not blameless. She is an abusive mother who regularly blames her children for her lack of success. But the film spends extensive time villainizing Bev, rather than examining the systems that created her in the first place.

J.D.’s grandmother, played by Glenn Close in a strange casting choice that resulted in an even stranger performance, steps into care for J.D., and she is the one who really pushes for him to do well in school and work hard. The film seems to be insinuating that this is a redemption for her character, as she is doing for J.D. what she failed to do for Bev. Close is decked out in heavy prosthetics, a frizzy wig and baggy old tee-shirts, with a cigarette in hand at all times, making her a caricature of the woman she is trying to portray. Both her character and Adams’ character are supposed to be honest portrayals of real people, but both of their performances are over the top and difficult to take seriously. 

This film is not the Rust Belt representation that it makes itself out to be. Do not be fooled by Amy Adams in her cutoff overalls or Glenn Close in her big glasses. This film takes the people of the Rust Belt and turns them into sad spectacles, without ever presenting a solution other than what is the classic American Dream, of working hard and finding success, when truthfully, success is more often the result of wealth and luck. This film feels more like it was designed so that wealthy people can point and laugh at the poor, and it is absolutely not worth the watch.