Sometimes reality is more interesting than fiction, as shown in the newly released film Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Based on the 2016 memoir by author J.D. Vance, the story chronicles Vance’s coming of age in Middletown, Ohio, struggling against abuse, poverty and a drug addicted mother.
We’ve seen the same conflict in stories before – a main character against society—but never in this setting. At every turn Vance is failed by the very government institutions that are supposed to be
safeguards, from education and healthcare to Child Protective Services. Though coarse, the hillbilly culture to which Vance belongs is what he and his community can depend on, stepping up for one another, like in how they honor their dead.
It is not until Vance’s grandmother begs to get a second free boxed dinner from a “Meals on
Wheels” delivery driver, with no luck, that Vance realizes the only way he’s going to better his
life is by being his own hero.
Much like Dorothy realizes in The Wizard of Oz, Vance understands that his fate rests only in his
hands. It’s noteworthy, even movie-worthy, when someone can defy the odds like this because
it is so, so difficult.
I enjoyed reading Hillbilly Elegy several years ago, and like most books versus movies, I thought
the book was better because there is time to go deeper into descriptions. The book builds
suspense as it moves in chronological order, whereas the movie begins where the book ends
(and Vance has made it to a prestigious position), flashing back and forth.
The essence of the characters in both the book and movie are very much the same. Directed by
Ron Howard, the film stars Glenn Close, Amy Adams, and Gabriel Basso. Close does a stellar job
in the role of Vance’s grandmother and should be nominated for an Oscar for her performance.
Close is transformative as a flawed, but complicated, woman, a completely different character
than some of her other acting highlights, including in the recent The Good Wife and the film in
which she first gained worldwide fame, Fatal Attraction.
It is too bad Hillbilly Elegy is rated-R, alienating more young people from seeing it. The movie
gets its rating for violence, harsh language, and drug use, which is definitely not shown in a
There are political inferences in the movie, which have critics taking sides about its merit, but I
watch films through the lens of whether young people would get something out of them and I
definitely think this film should be shared with viewers age 14 and older with an adult watching
Kid Focused Grades for Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
rated-R, running time: 1 hour and 56 minutes
Compelling story line- A
Strong message- A
Leading character is a role model- A
Sexual content – B (not much, but some innuendoes)
Violence- D (if toned down it could have gotten a PG-13 rating)
Suited for the whole family- B (not for children under 14)
Overall Grade: B
Julie Samrick is passionate about stories that capture the human experience. Connect with her at juliesamrick.com.