A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
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.
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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?
- On DVD or streaming: November 24, 2020
- Cast: Gabriel Basso, Amy Adams, Glenn Close
- Director: Ron Howard
- Studio: Netflix
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Book Characters, Misfits and Underdogs
- Character strengths: Perseverance
- Run time: 116 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: language throughout, drug content and some violence
- Last updated: October 12, 2021
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