Seeing Hillbillies

Still from Hillbilly Elegy. (Netflix).

The film Hillbilly Elegy is streaming on Netflix to harsh reviews. “A sluggish drama … ,” according to the Buzz Magazine critic, “that struggles to convey anything we haven’t seen before, done better and less clumsily.” I, however, enjoyed watching the film version of J.D. Vance’s 2016 bestseller, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture.

Why? Viewing human complexity and vulnerability in capitalist society helps me to understand what I have experienced. That is, after all, the basis of my consciousness.

Each familial relationship in Hillbilly Elegy is complex in its own way, a bit like Tolstoy’s take on the similarities of troubled families. Accordingly, the family members in Hillbilly Elegy experience life events that resonated with me.

In fact, I can say that the author’s relationships with his mother and grandmother compelled me to review the film. I will leave it to the readers’ imagination why that is so.

In brief, Hillbilly Elegy unpacks Vance’s life via flashbacks with his Kentucky-born mother and grandparents. Like the Kentucky family in Harriet Arnow’s 1954 novel, The Dollmaker, who move to Detroit for industrial employment, Vance’s grandfather leaves the Bluegrass State for a job as a steelworker in the Buckeye State.

Vance’s narrative personalizes how migration for employment is a feature of modern capitalism. Caucasians and African-Americans moved from the union-free south to the north where labor organization created improved job prospects. Black and white wage earners voted with their feet, leaving familiar ways of life behind for new ones.

Hillbilly Elegy, in part, occurs in Ohio. It is deindustrializing in the 1980s. Michigan, notably Detroit where The Dollmaker takes place in the 1950s, was the car-making leader of the world. Hillbilly culture connects the memoir to the novel, with big differences. One is that Arnow’s mother character is quite unlike Vance’s real-life mom.

In Hillbilly Elegy, Vance leaves Yale Law School, temporarily, for Ohio to help his mother, who has overdosed. A single parent, she’s a nurse and a drug addict.

In flashbacks, Vance’s mom explodes on him, physically and verbally, from time to time. His clumsiness is one trigger for her outbursts. Other triggers spur the mom’s violent mood swings.

Glenn Close plays Vance’s grandmother. She is a stabilizing presence for him in deed and word. He needs and receives that.

The grandmother’s character, as Close portrays her, captures the nuanced qualities of strength and tenderness some adults can convey as mentors to youth. For example, when Vance runs with peers prone to mayhem, his grandmother redirects him, sternly, to focus on his studies.
She convinces Vance to pursue this path. Director Ron Howard treats their relationship with a deft touch. There is no clumsiness.

Amy Adams plays Vance’s troubled and troubling mother who never had someone to support her, she laments. Who can blame her?

A critique of the Hillbilly Elegy film is that the backstory of the mother is underdeveloped. More development of the mom’s early years would, I think, have shed useful light on the roots of her zero-to-sixty miles per hour personality.

In all, Hillbilly Elegy is a fair look at one white working-class family’s peaks and valleys as they make their way in an unforgiving world. Viewer, you be the judge.

Seth Sandronsky is a Sacramento journalist and member of the freelancers unit of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email