Hillbilly Elegy (2020), directed by Ron Howard

Since Hillbilly Elegy started streaming on Netflix a few weeks ago, there have been a plethora of negative reviews. Generally, before I decide to watch a film I read a few lines from reviews. I do not want to read the entire review since it may tell me too much about the film and spoil my enjoyment of the movie.

After sampling the reviews, I check out the Internet Movie Database Parent Guide to determine why a film has a particular rating. I followed that dual-protocol with Hillbilly Elegy, and I was curious to see the film, in spite of the negative reviews, because I admire its director, Ron Howard.

The film is based on the bestselling memoir by J.D. Vance, which explores three generations of a poor family in middle-America, as recounted by its youngest member, J.D., who rises above his impoverished background to eventually graduate Yale Law School. His personal history reveals the many challenges J.D. experienced in growing up. He witnessed parents and grandparents lose their grip on leading a conventional existence. Verbal abuse, alcoholism, an unstable home life, and exposure to family members addicted to drugs could easily have thwarted his academic dreams. However, because of the determined efforts of his grandmother, Mamaw, he finally found a pathway to educational and professional success. This led to leaving his hometown, attending Ohio State University, and then Yale Law School.

One clear theme of the movie that resonates throughout is the notion of taking responsibility for your life if you want to be successful. J.D.’s mother, Bev, does not take responsibility for her actions. Once a nurse in a large city hospital, she now is addicted to opioids and her life is in ruins. Regrettably, even her closest relatives are complicit in her downfall. They do not fully comprehend that by not vigorously protesting her addictions, they enable her to persist in her self-destructive ways. They do not allow her to see the consequences of her reckless lifestyle.   

J.D. grows up fast when he sees the adult world around him crumbling. It is only due to his grandmother’s intervention that he begins to see the consequences of his mother’s addiction for the rest of the family. A particularly touching scene occurs when J.D., now living with Mamaw, observes her asking the Meals on Wheels worker to give her more food since she is now taking care of her grandson. When her one meal is delivered, she divides it into two and gives her grandson the larger portion. J.D., through the crucible of painful life experience, understands that he has to take responsibility for his actions if he is to be a success in life.

Rabbi Yitzchak Berkowitz writes about the concept of taking responsibility from a Jewish perspective: “Taking responsibility means working out what is right by studying, thinking and understanding. Figure out what you are living for and what your goals are and how you will achieve them, and understand the consequences of stupidity and impulsiveness. Taking responsibility means recognizing that up until now you have followed your impulses, never really choosing, letting your life simply unfold and being more of an observer than an active participant. It’s the realization that reality is passing you by and that it’s not going to wait for you. And if you don’t grow up and take responsibility now, you are going to miss it.”

Hillbilly Elegy may take place in rural America, but it has a universal message that transcends both time and place. When film critics deem it “inauthentic,” they miss the essential truth of the film; namely, that achieving success in life requires one to take responsibility for one’s behavior and to make choices that further your progress towards your life’s goal. In that sense, Hillbilly Elegy accomplishes its cinematic vision by reminding us not to let life just happen to us, but to take charge of our lives and make wise decisions that move us towards successful living.

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