Hillbilly Elegy recently hit Netflix as a new dramatic feature and has garnered quite a bit of critical attention with its release. Based on a 2016 memoir, this dramatic film captures the ins and outs of a Yale student who grew up relatively poor in Ohio. This film takes a very traditional telling of an “American Dream” story and turns the notion of the American Dream on its head.
The braided narrative crosses between main character J.D.’s upbringing and his present. In the modern iterations of the plot, J.D.’s mother, Bev, has been admitted to the hospital after a heroin overdose. He heads back home to Ohio to help his sister take care of his mom and that’s when much of the guts of this plot begin. This decision is one that weighs heavy on J.D., as it is interview week for top law firms and visiting his mother means missing out on job opportunities. Throughout J.D.’s time reminiscing on the past, the viewer is keyed into several establishing moments in J.D and his mother’s relationship through flash back memories. It is revealed that J.D.’s mother was emotionally and financially unstable throughout his childhood, prompting them to live with her various significant others and causing many moments of tension between the mother and son.
After his grandfather’s death, Bev begins stealing meds at her job at the hospital, leading to her eventual addiction issues that are seen manifested in the present. In the more modern iteration of the plot, Bev is refused from the hospital she’s been admitted to due to her lack of health insurance. J.D. attempts to have her admitted to a rehabilitation program, but she refuses to go after J.D. puts payment down for the program. In the finality of this film, J.D. decides to go back to interview for a prominent law firm, despite the class-defined setbacks which put him at a disadvantage in the preliminary rounds of interviewing.
This story exposes the flaws of American culture which are often overlooked in narratives which focus on American success stories. It destroys the concept of the “perfect” nuclear family which has become so integral to the idea of success in society. Bev, as a mother and a person, exhibits behaviors that are extremely abusive, specifically to her son. She, at one point, threatens death to her son, speeding up to 75 miles an hour on a residential street and claiming that he wasn’t grateful enough for the life she built for him. She hits him, and he is forced to run to a nearby house for safety from her rage. As a mother figure, Bev is nothing like the perfectly domesticated white women that are written about so frequently in narratives which glorify the mystical idea of the American Dream. A constantly shifted father figure also sets J.D.’s family apart from traditional nuclear families, as more customary American family structure places heavy emphasis on a strong father who leads his household.
Not only does Bev’s character break away from the stereotypical nuclear family associated with the American Dram, her emotional state also brings realism into the plot of Hillbilly Elegy. Mental health is something very rarely addressed by tales of making it big in America. Although Bev herself isn’t necessarily the one who “beats all odds”, her son is surely affected by her emotional state and her abusive tendencies. This affect has clearly come to shape J.D. in who he grows up to be, as almost all of his memories of his mother and childhood revolve around her mental instability. From her suicide attempt to her eventual substance abuse problems, it is clear that Bev’s mental health issues have and always will, in some way, affect her son and his success story. As a teenager, even J.D. begins to act out as a result of his tumultuous upbringing, with this type of outburst typically indicative of depression or some other mental struggle. This acknowledgement of mental health issues which are very poorly treated by American institutions defines Hillbilly Elegy as being much closer to reality than other telling’s of the American Dream.
From a much broader perspective Hillbilly Elegy addresses a huge issue which is often ignored in the modern perception of America and its “greatness”; the Opioid Crisis. The over-accessibility to pain killers across the Midwest has produced a wave of, mostly white, lower class Americans who have become terribly dependent on opioids. This health crisis has been going on since the 1980s and is rarely acknowledged in many media portrayals of America; these depictions conveniently leave out the masses of people that corporations have gotten hooked on highly addictive substances. This is the very same crisis to which Bev falls victim to and which now works to shape J.D.’s ability to find a successful career and forget all about his background.
At the end of the film, J.D.’s return to Washington D.C. for his interview is an experience that has been undoubtedly shaped by the anti-American Dream that his life has been characterized as. His desire to get a job, despite all of his previous hesitations about leaving, was outweighed by his commitment to his family, something that would be absolutely unheard of in a Wolf of Wallstreet-esque film. Although some reviewers have been critical of the way in which this film might glorify poverty, Hillbilly Elegy undoubtedly brings up many more facets of the dark side of American life than films before it have done. It doesn’t romanticize J.D. like a Gatsby or Belfort have been, and instead shows its viewers the brutal underbelly of the life of a successful law school student who is still grappling with his upbringing’s effects on his identity.