My Kinfolk (Film Review: “Hillbilly Elegy”)

One American family’s struggles with multi-generational abuse & addiction, based on the best-selling memoir.

SnapShot Plot

The highly anticipated film adaptation of J. D. Vance’s memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, may not seem like an uplifting NSP choice for Thanksgiving Weekend, but perhaps it does check one box. It’s a hands-down winner for the “thank God my family’s not as screwed up as this one” award, full stop.

Directed by Ron Howard and co-starring Amy Adams and Glenn Close in bare-bones, Oscar-worthy performances, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of three generations in the Vance family, a scrappy bunch who left the backwoods hills of Kentucky for the lower-middle-class suburbs of Middletown, OH. The story unwinds from J.D.’s perspective in two time periods: in flashback as a bright but troubled teenager, and in the present day as a Yale Law School student with a wonderful girlfriend, intent on landing a career-defining summer internship at the right law firm.

In raw and explosive scene after scene, the dysfunctional dynamic of the family is hung out like dirty laundry for the public to witness, over decades of domestic abuse, addiction, and rage/impulse control issues. Glenn Close is almost unrecognizable as the family matriarch, known as Mamaw, who – surly as she is – is the last best hope for young J.D. to turn his life around while he’s still got a chance. His mother, Bev, in the most ferocious performance we’ve seen yet from Amy Adams, is a portrait in hopelessness. Bev’s life hasn’t been a cakewalk, and yes she’s been dealt a rough hand. In a fleeting flashback illustrating the traumatic childhood she suffered at the hands of Mamaw, one can almost forgive Bev for her virulent abusiveness toward her own children, J.D. and his sister, Lindsay. But as anyone who’s had an addict in the family will tell you, the road to recovery is steep and more often than not – like a drowning victim – they will drag you down with them before they commit to their own rehabilitation, if they ever do.

When J.D.’s sister calls him to help her with Bev, after her latest tragic mishap, he goes out of a grim sense of duty, only to find out that he’s expected back in New Haven the following day for a critical interview at the law firm of his choice. As the hours tick by and J.D. realizes just what he’s up against, he’s pulled in two directions: first as the dutiful son and brother who finally wants to do something, anything, to stop the cycle of sadness and violence that is his mother’s world; and second, he wants more than anything to rid himself of his own sad family saga and to move forward with his life, free to make it a healthy and productive one with the woman he loves.

Parting Shot

As family dramas go, you can’t get any more real than Hillbilly Elegy. Not having read the memoir upon which it is based, I can only surmise it was a mostly accurate depiction of the Vance family and their troubles. And if casting and wardrobe are any indicators of verisimilitude, stick around for the closing credits; it’s astounding how close to perfect the production got with the real Mamaw and Bev, from family still shots and home movies.

Speaking of casting. . . although Adams and Close obviously carried the narrative as the two female anchors of the family, the choices for the young and present-day J.D. were spot on with Owen Asztalos and Gabriel Basso, respectively. Also quite effective was Haley Bennett as Lindsay and a nice supporting turn by Slumdog Millionaire’s Freida Pinto.

Hillbilly Elegy may seem like a downer to some, however, one cannot turn away from the raw truths which the memoir and the film address. The mental health issues and the generational inheritance of domestic violence and abuse are frightening enough, but when they’re combined with a certain socio-economic section of society, the damage becomes epic. And the cycle becomes a vicious one. The film’s message is not sugar-coated here. But it’s not a singular message. There is also hope: for change, for forgiveness, for a future.

Hillbilly Elegy is presently streaming on Netflix.

Norma’s Streaming Picks is proud to partner on a fantastic site for Baby Boomers, Midcentury/Modern (presently known as Pandemic Diaries) as well as right here at home. I invite you to go there for more great content!

YouTube Trailer

4 Comments

  • Paula Sinclair says:

    It was painful to watch but I grew up in Cincinnati an remember having to bail my mother and stepfather for fighting outside a bar when my mother thought another woman was making eyes at my stepfather. I never experienced the horrible things that were happening in the Vance households. I was the oldest of 3 sisters. Both of my sisters were drug and alcohol abusers. My sister Beverly committed suicide when she was early 40’s. The first time she tried was when she was 16. My sister Betty died of liver disease caused by her drug and alcohol consumption. I was like JD’s sister and married at 18 and never looked back. I feel like I was very lucky indeed.

    • Norma says:

      Paula, thank you for your honest and heartfelt comment on my review. It seems this picture has touched people deeply and as brutal as it is, in parts, it tells an important story about issues which are had to acknowledge in the fabric of our modern family. Thank you.

  • Judy Levy says:

    We were mesmerized by the performances. Glenn transformed physically into Mamaw! Very interesting film: fond memories in spite of complete dysfunction.

    • Norma says:

      As was I! Yes, you are so right. Despite almost insurmountable pain and hurt, we hang on to what few positive memories we can. Thanks so much for your comment!!

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