Movie Review: ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ shines light on Appalachian culture

Mamaw Vance (Glenn Close), left, and Bev Vance (Amy Adams), right are two of the main characters in “Hillbilly Elegy.” (Illustration by Kyiesha Chavez).
By Kyiesha Chavez

Glenn Close, Amy Adams and Gabriel Basso star in the film adaptation of J.D. Vance’s best selling memoir “Hillbilly Elegy.” 

The film is a modern analysis of the American Dream through three generations of the Vances. It focuses more on J.D.’s relationship with his mother and her ongoing heroin addiction, as well as the love and care of his supportive grandmother.

J.D. (Basso), a Yale law student, attends an important dinner with representatives from top law firms scouting for new talent. He is astonished by the silverware around his plate and sneaks off to call his girlfriend Usha (Frieda Pinto) about how to use each utensil. 

This scene is meant to show how J.D. is out of his element as a U.S. Marine veteran with an undergraduate degree from Ohio State and a long family history in rural Appalachia. 

Then comes the awkward silence as he speaks about his background and a casual arrogance emerges in regard to state schools and “rednecks.”

J.D. is soon called back home by his sister (Haley Bennett) after their mother Bev (Adams) has relapsed and overdosed. The real story starts here as we go back and forth between the important events that shaped his childhood and his current situation. 

Glenn Close is amazing in her role as Mamaw, J.D.’s grandmother and matriarch of the family. 

She completely transforms for this role with elaborate prosthetics and hours in makeup and hair — the outcome being that she looks exactly like the real Mamaw Vance. She takes this role seriously and shows us the true fierceness and tough-love of an Appalachian grandmother.

Adams is also something to admire as Bev Vance, showcasing a real life picture of a mother who lost herself after having children young and not being able to find her way back until they’re already grown.

Director Ron Howard and writer Vanessa Taylor made the entire film, with its flashbacks,  organic and natural — as if we were reading it straight from the book.

The film is conscious of never looking down on the characters, making us realize that the term “hillbilly” is a term of endearment for the people who wear it with pride.

We see that they are given the short-end of the stick in life and the rest of America has left them behind to fend for themselves. 

The movie leaves you with a feeling that reflects the title — a sense of loss and mourning as you watch tidbits of what this family has experienced through different generations. 

In the end, I was left in tears at an artful display of one of America’s most relatable problems.