Bev wanted to be a good mother. She wanted to give her kids a good home.
You don’t always get what you want.
As a teen, J.D. watched his mom shuffle through a series of failed, “flavor of the month” relationships and dive into crippling drug addictions. Any success the boy later experienced was in spite of his mom, not because of her.
And yet, when soon-to-be-Yale grad J.D. considers his mother, he burns with a fierce pride for her, too. Bev put herself through nursing school as a single mom. She was once one of Middletown, Ohio’s best nurses. She used to kid J.D. that he got his smarts from her, and he knows it’s true.
When sitting with a bevy of Ivy-League students and East Coast elites during a high-pressure meet-and-greet dinner, a would-be employer smugly ribs J.D. over his “redneck” heritage.
“My mother was salutatorian at high school,” he snaps back. “Smartest person I’ve ever met. Probably the smartest person in this room.”
“Maybe we should be offering your mother a position,” another would-be employer jokes.
J.D. tries to smile, but it’s hard. Just that day, he’d gotten a call from his sister, Lindsay, in Middletown. Bev’s back in the hospital. “She started using again,” Lindsay tells him. This time, she ODed on heroin.
When family works right, a good mother is its anchor. She rocks her babies when they’re colicky and kisses their cut knees. She guides her children through school and soccer practice. She’s there for every breakup and every bad decision.
But J.D. knows it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes, the child must care for the parent. And so he packs his bags for the 11-hour drive back to Middletown to deal with his mother yet one more time.
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
We focused on J.D. and Bev in the intro above, but here we’ll unveil an equally important player: Mamaw, Bev’s mom and J.D.’s grandmother.
True, she wasn’t a great mom to Bev in her own right. But by the time J.D. comes along, she’s learned a thing or two, and she becomes the closest thing to stability that J.D. has in his life.
As Bev grows more irresponsible and, at times, more abusive, J.D. begins to slip into some destructive patterns of his own. He’s failing classes. He begins hanging out with some friends who use drugs. He loans out his sick grandmother’s car for a night of wonton destruction.
Bev doesn’t seem to much care by then, so Mamaw sweeps in and takes control—becoming J.D.’s de facto guardian. She forces the adolescent’s shiftless friends off her property, pushes him to do his homework and makes the kid help out around the house.
But she knows, ultimately, that J.D.’s path is his own: “You gotta decide,” she tells him. “You gonna be somebody or not.”
J.D. does decide. He takes on the hard work of following the path that Mamaw points him toward. And after he overhears how much she has sacrificed to take him in, he turns into a helpmate, not a headache; his work ethic propels him all the way to Yale.
As an adult, J.D. tries to be a dutiful, caring son. But obviously, his relationship with his mom comes with a lot of baggage, and Bev’s continual irresponsibility and self-destructive behavior pushes him almost to the point of giving up on her. But Lindsay, his sister, cautions him.
“I can’t defend her,” she tells J.D. “But I’m trying to forgive her. If you don’t, you’re never gonna get out of what you’re trying to get out of.”
Bev, too, has her loving moments—as well as painful ones of self-realization. “You and your sister are the only things I ever did in my life worth s—,” she tells J.D.
The Vance family is deeply religious. But their choices aren’t always consistent with their stated convictions.
An adult J.D. sums up that inconsistency when he describes Mamaw to his girlfriend, Usha: “She would go from, ‘Jesus walks with you, J.D. Stay strong. Don’t forget that,’ to, um, ‘I wish I had a gun so I could shoot that d–khead drill sergeant of yours.’”
We hear an extended portion of a sermon on the radio as Bev and her (still young) kids spend time in Kentucky, where their family roots are, with the preacher asking his listeners to absorb the “magnificence of God’s creation.” Then he adds, “Let us hold faith not only in that God, but in ourselves and our character.”
At home, Bev insists that her kids come into the house and decorate Easter eggs with her. When Lindsay protests that her boyfriend, Kevin, is outside, Bev says, “I don’t care if it’s the baby Jesus. It’s Easter, g-dd–n it, get your a– in here.”
When Bev goes into a drug rehab facility for the first time, a teen J.D. makes her an activity book, complete with some “Bible stuff.” J.D. reads a psalm at someone’s deathbed. There’s a joking reference to someone being a “spirit guide.”
When J.D. asks why Mamaw and Papaw moved from Kentucky to Ohio, Bev tells him, “Because when you’re knocked up at 13, you get the h— out of Dodge, that’s why.”
We see a 13-year-old Mamaw running off with her lover to Ohio, and the two hug and kiss a bit. Their marriage didn’t last ‘til “death do they part,” but some deep affection remained until the very end.
Bev, we learn, raised both Lindsay and J.D., primarily as a single mother. But she’s hardly been celibate during that time. When she gets married, when her kids are still teens, J.D. expresses surprise that she married a guy he’d never even heard of. (Last he knew, she’d been dating a guy named “Matt,” not the “Ken” she got hitched to.) And when Bev announces that they’re moving into Ken’s house, J.D. grouses, because they’ll just have to move out again when the relationship goes bad.
When J.D. comes back as an adult, Bev’s newest beau throws all of her belongings out his second-story window, calling her a “whore” and saying that she’ll perform oral sex on any man she comes in contact with.
We see Lindsay kiss and hug and carry on with her boyfriend as a teen. J.D. has a girlfriend at Yale. And while we don’t know for sure if they’re living together, they do chummily fix breakfast together one morning. Bev jokes about ogling football players in tight pants.
Bev slaps and beats J.D. At one juncture J.D. flees from her, worried she’s going to kill him. (When police arrive at the scene, though, he says he overreacted.) We see Bev slap Lindsay, too. We also see an explanatory flashback to Bev’s own childhood: Mamaw and Papaw are arguing, and we hear Mamaw getting hit. Later that night, Mamaw sets a drunk and passed-out Papaw on fire: Bev and her sister rush to extinguish their father.
A couple of bullies submerge J.D. in a swimming hole. He fights his assailant and is losing badly when members of his own family dive into the fray. He walks away with a bloody nose and a sense of pride, stoked by his clan.
J.D. and some friends trash a warehouse and, as they try to drive away from the security personnel, crash a car. (No one is injured.) Someone is found incapacitated on the floor. People die. An angry Bev drives dangerously down the road, telling a petrified J.D. that she just might try to crash and kill them both. J.D. mentions that he’s related to the guy who started the Hatfield and McCoy feud.
Mamaw’s favorite movie is Terminator 2: Judgement Day (we see a scene from the film play in the background), and she explains that there are three types of people in the world: Good terminators, bad terminators and neutral terminators. J.D. thinks of Mamaw as a good sort of terminator, and she does indeed fire off colorful threats to those whom she doesn’t like.
We hear more than 35 f-words and another 30 or s-words, along with several uses apiece of “a–,” “b–ch,” “b–tard,” “d–n,” “h—” “p—y,” “d–khead” and “p-ss.” God’s name is misused at least two dozen times, about 15 of which also are paired with “d–n.” Jesus’ name is abused four times.
Bev’s drug habit begins when she’s a nurse. We see her pilfering pills from her patients, and she gets so high one afternoon that she skates down the middle of the hospital’s ER wing in someone else’s skates. When she tries to get her license back, she asks J.D. to provide a urine sample for her, since hers is dirty. (Mamaw insists to J.D. that it’s the right thing to do.)
But it’s questionable whether J.D. even has a clean sample to give. By that time, Bev has moved in with her new husband, Ken, who grows lots of marijuana plants in his basement. Ken’s own son smokes the weed all the time without his father’s knowledge, and he offers some to J.D. He refuses at first, but it’s uncertain whether he continues to refuse: Next time we see J.D. with his new brother-in-law and their mutual friends, they’re passing a bong around. (They drink as well.)
As an adult, J.D. comes back and tries to get Bev into a rehab clinic, but his mom refuses to go. He walks in on her in the bathroom, apparently trying to inject heroin between her toes. (She’s furious when he flushes the needle down the toilet.) Her current boyfriend is described as a “junkie.”
We understand, through flashback, that Mamaw and Papaw were heavy drinkers. We see them and many others drink. J.D. is flustered by a choice of white wine at a fancy dinner, which he (rightfully) sees as a kind of test. Mamaw and Bev are heavy smokers, and we rarely see them without a cigarette in their respective hands. We hear a mention of the recreational drug whippets.
J.D. unzips his pants and urinates in a cup for a drug test. J.D. acts disrespectfully to both his mom and Mamaw. Lindsay backtalks, as well. Bev steals a bunch of football cards for J.D., much to both of their amusement.
Bev wasn’t the mother that she hoped she’d be. But thankfully, her own mother—as imperfect as she was—picked up the slack.
Hillbilly Elegy is based on the real J.D. Vance’s 2016 memoir, the full title of which is Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.
In his book, Vance uses his family as a way to explore broader socio-political issues and, by extension, a whole way of life. We see hints of that broader lens in the film: The sad, impoverished state of Middletown juxtaposed the lush forests of Kentucky; the blue-collar pragmatism he grew up with contrasted with the erudite elitism of Yale; the pride the Vances take in family—even if that family’s coming apart at the seams.
But for the most part, the film narrows its focus to a very human, multigenerational drama. This is all about J.D., Bev and Mamaw.
Some secular reviewers, while deservedly praising the performances of Amy Adams (Bev) and Glenn Close (Mamaw), say that the familial drama we’re given leans toward melodrama, and that (they’d argue) is not a good thing.
But for Plugged In’s purposes, the melodrama works in the movie’s favor. We’re left with little ambiguity about what its messages are. J.D. was rescued by his tough-as-Kentucky-bedrock Mamaw and made good on that rescue through dedication and hard work. It’s a really old-fashioned message, when you get right down to it: the idea that we really do have to work for our successes.
And it has a nice message about the importance of family, too, and extended family at that. It’s not just moms and dads that can make the difference in their kids’ lives. Grandmas and grandpas and uncles and cousins and siblings can have a huge, positive impact on these children. They just have to make the effort. They just have to be there.
Some elements obviously don’t work as well for a Plugged In audience, however—even though many of those content issues are necessary to expose the character issues in play here. You can’t strip the drug use away from the story: It’s a critical part of it, after all. But that means viewers can’t get away from it, either. The language the Vance family uses gives them added texture, but the f- and s-words are unremitting. Good messages or no, Hillbilly Elegy will make it hard for some to find them.
In the movie, J.D. finds the wherewithal to embrace the good stuff his family instilled in him, while also finding the grace to overcome and forgive the bad. Potential viewers of Hillbilly Elegy will have to make parallel choice if they choose to embrace the redemptive messages in this undeniably raw story and its flawed characters.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.