Hillbilly Elegy

Movie review by
Jennifer Green, Common Sense Media
Hillbilly Elegy Movie Poster Image
Language, violence, drugs in uneven bestseller adaptation.
  • R
  • 2020
  • 116 minutes

Parents say

age 15+
Based on 2 reviews

Kids say

No reviews yetAdd your rating

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Family is an essential element in a person's life, and family members stick up for one other. People don't choose where they come from, but they can control where they're headed. Not everyone achieves the "American dream," but social mobility is possible. Addictions can be conquered with support and intervention, but in trying to help, families often enable them. Kids need steady guidance, love, and discipline in their lives.

Positive Role Models

JD is a smart and sensitive boy who has potential but lacks stability at home. Bev, who had a stressful childhood herself, has trouble holding down a job, maintaining a relationship, and staying clean of drugs. She loses her temper repeatedly with her kids, sometimes getting violent. Mamaw, who suffered spousal abuse, stands up for JD and takes him in when he starts getting into trouble, helping set him on a successful path with support and tough love. JD begins applying himself at school and eventually, through perseverance, makes it into one of the top law schools in the country. Some regional stereotypes.

Violence

Plenty of fist fights and scenes of adults yelling at, hitting, and threatening each other and also kids. Three teens hold a younger boy under water. Bev nearly drives into oncoming traffic to teach her son a lesson, then chases him and hits him, breaking down a stranger's door in the process. He calls the police but later denies any wrongdoing. Bev repeatedly hurts her kids and herself, including taking drugs and at one point apparently cutting her wrist. Papaw comes home drunk and gets abusive, leading Mamaw to set him on fire. Their two young daughters see all this and one puts the fire out. Mamaw threatens to run people over or tells them they can talk to the barrel of her gun. Teens break into a factory and vandalize the inside, then make a getaway in a car, nearly hitting a motorcycle and crashing into a ditch.

Sex

Some discussion of women and girls getting pregnant and limiting their futures in the process, including Bev and also Mamaw, who was "knocked up at 13." JD and his law school girlfriend Usha hug and kiss.

Language

Insults and swearing throughout the film includes "junkie whore," "suck," "d--k," "d--khead," "ass," "a--hole," "p-ssy," "s--t," "bulls--t," "chickensh--t," "bastard," "f--k," "douchebag," "hell," "damn," "piss," "bitch," "fart." Other insults include "idiot," "stupid," "redneck," "dirtbag," and the middle finger. People use terms like "God," "Jesus," and "holy."

Consumerism

A key message concerns the challenges of breaking out of poverty. People traditionally flee poorer areas or countries seeking prosperity, but they don't always find it. Unexpected expenses can mean insurmountable setbacks. A child is failing math but his family can't afford the $80-plus calculator required for class. When his grandmother buys it for him, it means forgoing a prescription and having less to eat that month. His mother puts herself through nursing school as a single parent. When she falls ill due to addiction, the hospital kicks her out because she doesn't have insurance. Her son juggles multiple credit cards to pay for expenses and works three jobs to afford college tuition. He lacks necessary cultural capital in affluent settings at Yale. Brands seen prominently include Mac, iPhone, Radio Shack, Yale, Terminator, and Meals on Wheels.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Bev struggles with addiction to painkillers and later heroin, suffering an overdose that puts her in the hospital. Even so, JD catches her trying to inject heroin on a motel bathroom floor the day she's released from the hospital. A flashback shows her begging him to provide her a clean urine sample so she can pass a drug test at work. Mamaw chain smokes cigarettes and Bev smokes too. Papaw appears to have had a drinking problem. Adults drink alcohol at parties and events. As a teen, JD's friends are experimenting with pot, alcohol, and whippits, and there's peer pressure to partake. End credits tell us Bev has been sober for six years.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Hillbilly Elegy deals with mature themes including abuse, addiction, and poverty. Heavy swearing and serious insults ("junkie whore," "redneck," "d--k," "d--khead," "a--hole," "p-ssy," "f--k") are used throughout, and kids and teens witness adult-on-adult and adult-on-child violence, often intensified by drugs and alcohol. A challenging year in the teenage life of the main character is seen through flashbacks to show how things turned around for him. In the flashbacks, we see him abused emotionally and physically by his drug-addled and often out-of-work mother. He's offered drugs and alcohol by other teens, who get him into trouble with the law as well. His grandmother takes him in and sets him straight with the message that it's up to him whether he wants to "be somebody or not." Her other consistent message is to put family first, which we see him do repeatedly for his mom, including denying any wrongdoing after she abuses him and helping her after a heroin overdose. Some discussion of women and girls getting pregnant and limiting their futures in the process, including Bev and also Mamaw, who was "knocked up at 13." The movie promotes some regional stereotypes. 

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byMonic15 March 29, 2021

beautiful and touching movie

I believe everyone should see this movie. It includes themes of drug use , family dynamics, socioeconomic struggles. Anyone above age 13 can watch the movie. It... Continue reading
Adult Written byDodo61 November 30, 2020

Must see to understand poverty

This movie needs to be watched by educators! It shows what students go thru to survive everyday life in poverty!

There aren't any reviews yet. Be the first to review this title.

What's the story?

HILLBILLY ELEGY tells the story of JD Vance, a Yale Law School student from a poor white family that, two generations earlier, migrated from rural Kentucky to a factory town in Ohio in search of a brighter future. It's 2011 and Vance (Gabriel Basso) can barely afford tuition at Yale. He doesn't quite fit into the elite setting, but he's getting by with multiple part-time jobs, a supportive girlfriend, and the possibility of a prestigious summer internship at a DC law firm. When his mother overdoses on heroin, Vance has to return home, dredging up all the memories of his turbulent teen years. In 1997, his single mother (Amy Adams) rotated through a series of boyfriends and jobs and fell into a drug addiction. His grandmother (Glenn Close), herself once a teen mother abused by an alcoholic husband, largely enables her daughter's problems, but she does step in to help set Vance straight. It's the first sign of a life beyond his family's seemingly inherited hardships.

Is it any good?

Fans of JD Vance's best-selling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, will appreciate how the film adaptation has brought some scenes and relationships from memorable page to screen. The verdant hill country of poor, white Kentucky; a fancy Yale dinner with a confusing array of cutlery; the vicious cycles of poverty, addiction, and abuse that are so difficult to break out of. As the end credits confirm with photos of Vance's real family, the filmmakers also did a remarkable job styling the actors to look like the real people they're portraying. Close is nearly unrecognizable as Mamaw and fully embodies the character.

But none of this will matter as much to newcomers to Vance's tale, and the movie doesn't construct as compelling a life story as the source material did. Rather than telling Vance's tale chronologically, the script aims to draw parallels between turning points and key events in two key years of life, intermittently employing a voiceover for clarity. The parallels aren't particularly subtle, and chunks of Vance's life between high school and law school have basically been skipped over. A tunnel metaphor employed whenever characters enter or leave their decaying Ohio town feels a bit obvious. The film's final scenes carry implicit messages about success that may or may not resonate with viewers' own experiences.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about what elements were the most important in helping JD get out of Middletown and start a successful career in Hillbilly Elegy. JD points to two times he "needed to be rescued." Which were they, according to the film?

  • Mamaw says family is "the only thing that means a goddamn." Where is that value seen in the movie? Does your family believe something similar, and how do family members show that?

  • What did you think of the scene at the recruiting dinner at Yale? How was JD treated? Why did he feel that he didn't belong?

  • Have you read the book that this movie is based on? If so, how does the movie compare? If you haven't, do you want to read it now?

  • What stereotypes does the movie include? Why are stereotypes about where a person comes from harmful?

Movie details

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