The movie Hillbilly Elegy, streaming now on Netflix, follows three generations of a working class family played by Glenn Close, Amy Adams, and Gabriel Basso. While much of the film focuses on Basso’s character, real-life author J.D. Vance, as he comes of age, his mother Bev (Adams) and grandmother Mamaw (Close) also play significant roles as the film moves through key periods in Vance’s life.
The film is based on Vance’s own account of his childhood and his family’s experiences of poverty and the opioid epidemic in the rust belt town of Middlebelt, Ohio, which he chronicled in his 2018 book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.
Due to his mother’s battle with opioid addiction, Vance was raised by his grandmother before eventually leaving to serve in the Marine Corps. He then went on to study law at Yale University, and became a writer and public speaker. He was encouraged to write his story by his mentor at Yale, Amy Chua (the author who popularized the term “tiger mom” when she penned her own parenting memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in 2011).
Hillbilly Elegy examines the friction that Vance continually felt between himself and the environment in which he grew up, especially as he became increasingly socially mobile and moved further and further away from his Appalachian origins, and it is this complicated relationship with his background—and his family—that propels much of Hillbilly Elegy‘s plot.
The book became a New York Times bestseller, and Vance’s commentary on the struggles faced by working class communities were lauded by critics as insightful in the context of what motivates Trump voters (although both the book and movie largely elide specific political references). However, the memoir also faced a backlash from people living in the communities that Vance had written about, prompting the release of another book, Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy a year later.
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