When I went into Ron Howard’s new film, Hillbilly Elegy, I was weary because the writer of the book of the same name, J.D Vance, is a Republican venture capitalist. I was also weary because of all the scathing reviews from critics accusing the film of being “oscar-bait” and of perpetuating stereotypes of the lower class. With this being said though, I watched the film hoping maybe it would be so bad it was fun (like 2019’s bizarre Cats) but instead the film was so bad it was frustrating, especially in terms of its portrayal of mental illness and addiction.
The film follows J.D Vance (Gabriel Basso), a student at Yale Law School who must return home while in the midst of a major interview process to help his sister, Lindsay (Haley Bennett) take care of their mother, Bev (Amy Adams), who has just had a heroin overdose. Flashbacks simultaneously tell the story of young J.D (Owen Asztalos) as he struggles with his mother and decides to live with his Mamaw (Glen Close). What follows in these flashbacks is more of a bullet point list of trauma and Hallmark level inspirational speeches instead of any explorations of these characters. It feels almost like a cliff notes version of someone’s childhood rather than an actual story that the audience will emotionally connect to.
The most troubling aspect of the film though is how it handles the issues of addiction and mental illness. It becomes very clear early on in the flashbacks (that take up over half the film) that Bev is not well. She is happy and peaceful one moment but can quickly snap into an aggressive state of mind. At one point in the film Bev and J.D are driving around, laughing at first until Bev threatens to crash the car after she feels as though J.D is looking down on her and where her life has gone. With this rapid changing behavior on top of Bev stealing pills from the hospital she works at as a nurse, it can be easy for the audience to see that Bev is mentally unwell and could possibly even be Bipolar. However, the film is less interested in exploring this and more interested in how J.D rose above this to be the “better” and more successful person.
This is where the film really becomes a bad afterschool special that would have been shown during your school’s DARE program where we follow J.D as he “pulls up his bootstraps” and succeeds in the American Dream as he gets a job while his stoner classmates goof off, joins the Marines where he becomes a man, and attends Yale Law. The film not only plays this all out as an inspirational story, one consisting of a kid going into war so he can afford college and who refers to marijuana as a “gateway drug,” but this story also demonizes the character of Bev, as during all of this Bev gets fired from her nursing job and even tries to commit suicide. While J.D is portrayed as being the model American in his coming of age, Bev is demonized for her addiction and mental illness, which ends up simplifying these issues in the film.
Mental illness and addiction in the film are portrayed as a personal flaw instead of an actual illness. We as the audience are supposed to be proud that J.D has succeeded in the American Dream while we are supposed to look down at Bev for letting her flaws get the best of her. At one point in the film, the now adult J.D yells at his mom who doesn’t want to check herself into rehab and accuses her of being too lazy to go to rehab, that the reason for her untreated mental illnesses and addiction is that she, unlike J.D, was too lazy to pull her bootstraps up.
In another scene of the film where J.D is trying to convince an insurance agency to assist his mother, he explains that she is a good person because she put herself through nursing school while being a single mother. He never mentions whether she is a good mother or even a good person, but just that she worked hard to do a successful thing thus deserving help. It is as if the film equates what it means to be a good person to working hard towards success. One must wonder if Bev didn’t go to nursing school would J.D even be able to say his mother deserved help?
The issues of mental illness, addiction, and abuse are tough topics to discuss, especially when talking about your own experiences. The real J.D Vance obviously has dealt with a tough and abusive childhood, but these issues are handled in a very American individualist outlook, where addiction and mental illness is solely just the person giving up instead of working to be successful. Nothing in this film is seen as a grand societal issue but instead as individual issues, whether they have succeeded in the American Dream or have succumbed to the laziness of giving up. Instead of addiction being seen as the disease it actually is, it is instead seen as laziness and a failure of the individual.
At the end of the film, J.D leaves his mother at a hotel while telling her that he is about to go to an important interview because he is working hard and he will make something of his life. This is the last we see of Bev until the end credits tell us that Bev has been sober for six years. Since the last we see of Bev is J.D giving her an inspirational speech about success, the audience assumes that this is what got through to Bev to get over her addiction and mental illness. We don’t see her recovery, we don’t even hear her own perspective on any of her issues, so we as the audience are just left to assume that Bev was just able to get over all her issues because J.D’s success inspired her.
Ultimately, Hillbilly Elegy plays out like a confusing after school special where we are told that one can easily solve any issue, from untreated mental illness to drug addiction, just by pulling up your bootstraps and not being “lazy.” It acts as a pamphlet for the American Dream by showing how J.D Vance (obligatory reminder of “white straight man”) is able to succeed despite having a suicidal and drug addicted mother. The film asks “if he can succeed then why can’t you?” And worst of all, the film simplifies the real issues of addiction which not only weakens its characters and stories, but for those in the audience who have experienced addiction themselves.
‘Hillbilly Elegy’ is available to stream on Netflix.
By Brianna Benozich