I tend to miss out on a lot of Netflix movies. My modus operandi for the past half year or so (has it been that long?) has been to let you, dear reader, dictate the movies I see. Hence if you do not tell me to watch a Netflix title, I do not watch a Netflix title. When theaters reopened, that was my opportunity to make some of my own cinematic choices. At times, even this is rough sledding, with films that probably would not see the light of a local cineplex of it were not for COVID-19. This was made slightly worse yesterday when I heard from a friend that they were pushing back the release of the next James Bond flick, No Time to Die. Look, as long as theaters stay open I will be attending. For the rest, there are streaming services, and I was given Hillbilly Elegy (2020) to view.
When Hillbilly Elegy began, I thought, okay, we are going to have some light-hearted coming of age story chock-full of wholesome values, with some difficult lessons learned along the way. A young J.D. Vance (Owen Asztalos) is riding his bike in the hill country of Kentucky, and a narrator, the grown up J.D. (Gabriel Basso), talks about how he spent every summer in this Appalachian Eden. His family is originally from there, but his grandmother, Mamaw (Glenn Close) more familiarly, moved as a young bride just over the Ohio border to a small factory town called Middletown. His mom, Beverly “Bev” (Amy Adams) is a single mother to J.D. and Lindsay (Haley Bennett), his older sister, and mom is not so keen on the “hillbilly” lifestyle. Remember how I said that I thought this was going to be light-hearted? When they return to their Ohio home, it quickly becomes apparent that Bev has some issues, seemingly stemming from the loss of her husband. She also battles these for years, and you know this because the film cuts back and forth between J.D. as a teenager and as a law school student at Yale. Just as he is on the cusp of attaining a coveted summer internship at a prestigious law firm, Lindsay calls to inform him that mom has overdosed on heroine. J.D. decides to drive home to help out, and his return triggers the series of flashbacks. We see how strained is the relationship between J.D. and Bev, mostly caused by the manic episodes brought on by drug addiction. At one point Bev guns the engine of their car, saying she is going to purposely crash because of some offhand comment J.D. made. She then comes to a screeching halt before proceeding to beat her son. He manages to get out and flee to a nearby house and the protection of its owner, but Bev breaks through the door cursing the whole way. Yet when the police arrive he declines to press charges. So, yeah, it is complicated, to say the least. In more modern times, J.D. tries to get his mother into a rehabilitation clinic, and this is not the first time she has been in one. She refuses to go. He tries to bring her back to the apartment where she had been staying, but the guy she was living with wants nothing to do with her. He feels helpless and out of control, and he begins recalling how his problems with his mom had led him to beginning to smoke marijuana, fail at school, and become a bit of a juvenile delinquent. It was Mamaw who turned him around, and she sacrificed much to do so. She realized that as long as J.D. stayed around Bev, J.D. would continue to go down the wrong road. So Mamaw takes him into her house. But it was to comes with discipline, something entirely lacking in Bev’s life. That was how J.D. was able to improve his grades, enter the Marine Corps, and get into Yale Law School. It also explains why he has such trouble with his mom none because it looks like she has given up. When he takes her to a hotel room to stay while he drives back to Connecticut for a final interview, he steps out for a moment for food only to return to find her attempting to shoot heroine. He manages to wrench it from her. As she lays sobbing on the bed, she reaches back to him. Sitting there holding her hand, he realizes that he has his own life to live. He has his girlfriend, Usha (Freida Pinto), and a promising law career ahead of him. More importantly, he understands in that moment that he cannot save his mother, particularly if she does not want saving. Thus he tells his mother he loves her, that he hopes she gets better, and leaves.
One could look at Hillbilly Elegy and say that a real son would forego the life J.D. had been building for himself and not leave his mother’s side. He had done that as a teenager and it led to a broken home and him getting in trouble. Families are a wonderful blessing. They can also be complicated and messy. How you negotiate these relationships determines much about the person you become. I do not need to quote statistics for you to know that kids without a positive role model in their lives tend to have a more difficult time functioning as adults. That is one of the reasons why the Church refers to marriage and parenthood as a vocation. Getting pregnant and giving birth is as close as we will ever get in this world to taking part in God’s loving process of creation, and this explains the strong bonds that come with having a family. Life is also not easy, and movies like this one serve to remind us of this painful fact. There are coping mechanisms, and unfortunately Faith seems increasingly low on peoples’ lists of how to deal with difficulty. Families are the next best thing, yet so many today seem to be of the variety we see in the film. Besides, even in the best of situations they do not offer the kind of quick fix so often sought. So there are drugs. Pills, alcohol, marijuana, heroine, substance abuse is far too frequently the chosen medicine for whatever ails. When dealing with those that go this route, it is important to remember the things that J.D. came to realize. The first thing to acknowledge is that they are sick. However, this is a kind of sickness from which some do not want to recover. You can offer to help, Lord knows I have, but they have to have a willingness to get better that is completely shorn of your own desires for them. But if they do not want it, all you can do is pray.
If it is realness you are after, then Hillbilly Elegy is as real as it gets. I do not meant that simply in its content. The movie is based on a true story, and in the end credits they have pictures and home videos of the actual people portrayed. Amy Adams looks strikingly like Bev Vance. The real star in the doppelgänger department, though, is Glenn Close and Mamaw. I would be willing to bet that if you could transport Glenn Close back and replace her with Mamaw the Vance family would have been fooled, they are that similar. Still, it is a hard movie to get through just to see these resemblances. It is not a bad one, but there is a lot of adult content that is difficult to watch. There is no nudity, but other stuff befitting its R rating. Hence, proceed with caution.