Hillbilly Elegy is a dramatic film directed by Ron Howard, recently released on Netflix, 13 days after its premiere in theaters on November 11, 2020.
Based on J. D. Vance’s autobiographical book with the same title, it features the superb performances of Glenn Close, Amy Adams, Gabriel Basso, Haley Bennett, Freida Pinto, Bo Hopkins and Owen Asztalos. Several of these actors will probably compete for statuettes in the next edition of the Oscars, especially Glenn Close, who makes a meticulous and emotional interpretation of the protagonist’s grandmother.
Hillbilly Elegy tells, in the form of flashbacks, the life of J. D. Vance, a young ex-Marine from Southern Ohio and a law student at Yale who, on the verge of getting his dream job in the city, has to return to his hometown to take care of his troubled mother, when she relapses into her heroin addiction.
J.D. Vance is currently a successful venture capitalist; writer of this bestseller that during 2016 and 2017 was on The New York Times best seller list, reaching number 1; commentator for CNN and other important media; philanthropist in the fight against drug addiction and a Visiting Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute researching American society and culture, and the social impact of economic policy.
As seen in the film, this success was not easy to achieve, as his childhood and youth were marked by poverty, violence, and marginalization. His story is an updated version of the American Dream, told through three generations of his family, with special emphasis on the turbulent relationship with his mother, a heroin addict, and above all, with his grandmother, who was the true pillar of his development as a person.
J.D. was raised in Middletown, Ohio, the third-largest city in the Cincinnati metropolitan area, by a family of Appalachian descent from Kentucky. These values included loyalty and love for one’s family and country, as well as not initiating violence, but standing up firmly against aggression from others. These theoretical values were unfortunately accompanied in practice by physical, psychological, and verbal violence in his family and environment, exacerbated by alcoholism, drug abuse and lack of responsibility and work ethic.
Her mother, Bev Vallance, played by Amy Adams, is a person marked by a violent childhood who could not overcome growing up with alcoholic and abusive parents.
The only constant that J.D. has had in his mother’s upbringing has been instability. Bev has always been an unbalanced person, going from laughter to tears in a matter of minutes, and from love to violence at one time or another. She has been unstable in her relationships, constantly changing partners and depriving J.D. of a father figure to set an example.
She has changed homes countless times, moving in with each new boyfriend, which she sees as the only alternative to government aid to find economic stability. She has not kept any job because she lacks consistency and work ethic, abandoning every job or being fired from every job opportunity she has been given.
However, J.D. Vance manages to break this vicious circle thanks to his efforts and the help of his grandmother Mamaw, with whom he moves in after abandoning his mother. Mamaw straightens out her own life in time to save her grandson and help him get out of the self-destructive spiral that she could not avoid for her daughter.
J.D. refuses to consider himself a victim of society or his family dynamics. He realizes that his life depends only on the decisions he makes and that the misfortunes of others are a consequence of the irresponsibility with which they have faced their lives.
Since he moved in with his grandmother, he starts working in a food store, where he sees how all his neighbors who subsist thanks to welfare spend their days talking on expensive cell phones, while he saves and has no phone. He watches as his friends abandon good jobs complaining of exploitation, or skip work to stay at home getting high and waiting for financial aid promised by the politician on duty.
The transition of his mentality is parallel to the political evolution that his region has been experiencing, going from having a “democratic mentality”, based on victimhood and welfare, to a “republican mentality”, based on creating opportunities for everyone to progress through personal effort and improvement.
Academics vs. Hillbilly Elegy
Of course, this moral that J. D. Vance leaves us in the film has caused it to be treated harshly by the expert critics. In Rotten Tomatoes, Hillbilly Elegy is rated 25% by the critics and 78% by the audience. When this discrepancy between the opinions of the specialists and the common people occurs, it is usually because the film transmits conservative values far from the progressive mainstream of the media. It is usually like that.
A common criticism of the film and the book is that Vance’s arguments are based on circular logic, ignoring existing academic studies on poverty in Appalachia, and that it is primarily a work of self-indulgence. In other words, a man from the office of an elitist university knows the problems of the “Hillbillies” and the solutions to them better than J. D. Vance himself, a real “Hillbilly” who knew how to successfully escape from the poverty to which he seemed condemned.
In short, this is a film that transmits the conservative values of personal effort, love for family, loyalty, humility, and respect for your origins, as the best recipe for prosperity, generating independent, free and responsible people. In contrast to the condescension and paternalism proclaimed by progressives, who are determined to generate dependent people, making them believe that they are victims of society and not of their own decisions, thus perpetuating poverty in the poor.