I grew up in Appalachia, so I know something about hillbillies. I guess you could say I am one. My wife affectionately calls me her Renaissance Redneck. That’s why I can identify with J.D. Vance’s bestselling memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy.”
Director Ron Howard has turned the book into a movie of the same name, starring Amy Adams and Glenn Close. You can find it streaming on Netflix.
The story, jumping backward and forward in time, tells of Vance’s upbringing in Middletown, Ohio, although his dysfunctional family traces its roots to the hill country of Kentucky.
“Hillbilly Elegy” is a good title, in that an “elegy” is a poem of serious reflection, typically a lament for the dead.
Rather than going to therapy, Vance uses this outlet to come to terms with his impoverished childhood, his heroin-addicted mother and the stern-but-loving grandmother who raised him.
Vance’s mother Bev is still alive and has been drug-free for a handful of years, but it is his grandmother, Mamaw, that he is saying goodbye to in this literary exorcism.
As his movie character says, “I think that’s what kills me the most about Mamaw. I never got to tell people just how much she meant to me.” Well, here he does.
J.D. Vance attributes his success — being a Yale grad and a venture capitalist — to the Appalachian values his Mamaw imparted to him during his formative years.
Reminds me of a CEO I know who backhandedly complimented his VP, who came from a lower middle-class family, “You’ve done pretty well for yourself, considering your background.”
In the movie version, we see James David Vance (played by Gabriel Basso as an adult) face his hillbilly roots, fumbling with which fork to use at a dinner party, stumbling over the difference in pronunciation between “surp” and “syrup.”
My wife teases me over my inability to distinguish between the sound of “pen” and “pin.” She even bought me a first-grade flashcard that illustrates the difference.
“Hillbilly Elegy” is a bit of a downer. Someone watching the movie with me summed it up with that old homily, “Life sucks, then you die.”
However, in the movie, Vance puts it this way:
“Twice I’ve needed to be rescued. The first time it was Mamaw who saved me. The second, it was what she taught me. That where we come from is who we are, but we choose every day who we become. My family’s not perfect, but they made me who I am and gave me chances that they never had. My future, whatever it is, is our shared legacy.”
Some critics have described the movie as “shameless Oscar bait,” recognizing the strong performances of Adams as the mother; Close as the grandmother. Adams put on a little weight for the role of Bev and lets her emotions tumble out in a raging, crying, self-absorbed temper tantrum. And you won’t recognize once-glamorous Close as the hardscrabble old Mamaw, looking like that woman in Dorothea Lange’s Depression-era “Migrant Mother” photograph. She wears bitter old age as if it were a shawl.
Let’s pause here to give a call-out to casting director Caren Cuba. Looking at the real-life photos of J.D. and Bev and Mamaw during the film’s end credits, you cannot tell them from the actors she picked to portray Vance and his family in this almost two-hour drama.
A Republican with political ambitions, Vance did the talk-show circuit in 2016 using his book to explain Trump’s base. As one critique summarized it: “Vance raises questions such as the responsibility of his family and people for their own misfortune. Vance blames hillbilly culture and its supposed encouragement of social rot. Comparatively, he feels that economic insecurity plays a much lesser role.”
Appalachian values? Social rot? Seems to me that Vance tries to have it both ways.
A good movie? Film Companion explained it like this: “As with most recent Ron Howard movies, he has a way of making bad movies feel good.”