There’s a moment in Hillbilly Elegy where Glenn Close, disguised as elderly, disgruntled Mamaw, tells her grandson that she loves The Terminator, “There are good terminators, bad terminators and neutrals.” The film’s theme proves the opposite: people are typically a mix of all three. Based on J.D. Vance’s best-selling autobiography that follows his tumultuous upbringing in Middletown, Ohio, this Netflix adaptation from writer Vanessa Taylor and director Ron Howard shows the effort and willingness it takes to break a cycle of unhealthy familial behavior.
Contrary to the criticism Vance’s story has received in a time when the country is so morally divided, one side fighting for lives to be saved, the other side fighting for lower taxes and the demise of democracy, those feelings can be put aside to focus on the central story being told. Hillbilly Elegy is more of a character study than a political statement. Gabriel Basso (Super 8, The Kings of Summer) plays 26-year-old J.D., a Yale law student working three jobs and preparing for a make-or-break interview for an internship. When he receives a call from his sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett) with the news that their mom Bev (Amy Adams) overdosed, he has to drive home, help his family and make it back in time for the meeting.
The ticking clock creates a framework for J.D.’s story as the film flashes back to his late-90s youth where we get a clearer view into Bev’s erratic mothering style. Unsurprisingly, Adams convincingly embodies a troubled, drug-addicted woman whose demons overshadow any glimpses of perspective and level-headedness. One minute she’s painting Easter eggs with J.D. and the next, she’s slapping him in the face with full-on rage. The immediate flip of the mood switch is unsettling, purposefully so, for viewers, J.D. and Mamaw, whose own parenting regrets bubble to the surface. While the film could have delved deeper into Mamaw’s backstory, it’s merely implied that shockingly terrible parenting is a generational trait. She tries to atone for her past by molding her grandson’s future, taking J.D. into her own custody and reinforcing the importance of education and discipline.
His success makes his return home all the more conflicting and relatable for people who have escaped the grip of traumatic childhoods. How do you balance inherent love for your family and respect for yourself? Perhaps the answer to that question and the hero of the story (to this viewer, at least) is Lindsay Vance, a type of woman rarely depicted in mainstream movies – a loving mother who works at a shoe store to make ends meet while raising children and taking care of her needy mess of a mother. She might not have attended an Ivy League school, but those accomplishments are just as admirable – and Bennett’s performance should not go unnoticed.
Screenwriter Taylor, whose credits include the Oscar-nominated The Shape of Water and Emmy-winning Game of Thrones, evokes a project from her early writing career in her script: Everwood, one of the most underrated family dramas of all time. In Hillbilly Elegy, there are shades of that show’s romantic maturity in J.D. and his girlfriend Usha (Freida Pinto). While most of their scenes are phone conversations, their dynamic offers viewers moments to breathe, to pause and to hope for a better future. That’s the message here, despite a cloud of controversy and biting cynicism from critics. This story is about the people who were there for you and the people you’ll be there for, even if it’s yourself.