Hillbilly Elegy Only Scratches The Surface Of Opioid Epidemic

The controversial 2016 memoir Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis hit shelves with a polarizing splash upon its release. The best-seller penned by J.D. Vance tackles the turbulent life of Vance’s Appalachian family throughout his childhood in Middleton, Ohio. Vance addresses the many intersections of poverty, family trauma, and community distress, piecing together these fragments to offer a fuller picture of his take on rural sociology. The memoir is decidedly conservative in its conclusions, but nevertheless anchored by his experience.

It is Vance’s outspoken, perhaps unpopular analysis of his upbringing and culture that drew in readers for a candid, complex dialogue about life for many Americans. With the book having gained sales around the time of President Trump’s inauguration in 2017, some have seen Vance’s work as a window to the ideologies of Trump’s avid supporters in the Rust Belt and Appalachia during the 2016 election. Vance’s assertions about hillbilly culture are largely unforgiving, yet at the very least, readers will find that Vance put together a narrative he speaks boldly.

The recent Netflix adaptation of the book, directed by Ron Howard, which premiered ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, unfortunately manages to say nothing at all. 

Hillbilly Elegy (2020) is an obvious bid by Netflix for recognition in the upcoming awards season, calling on world class talents Amy Adams and Glenn Close to depict the matriarchs in Vance’s life, his mother and grandmother, respectively. The big-screen story of Vance’s coming of age is packaged as an emotionally heavy, domestic drama, but struggles to find footing in its storytelling lens. It is not a journey through adolescence into manhood for J.D., nor dive into addiction for Adams’ Bev Vance, nor a reflection of generational trauma for Close’s Mamaw. Instead, Hillbilly Elegy tosses in undercooked elements of all three and hopes to make an impact.

Photo: Netflix

The screenplay meanwhile wrings itself dry of social commentary that first drew in audiences to the source material. Viewers see flashbacks of the once-successful industry in Middleton, Ohio transition into widespread economic failure and recurring glimpses of domestic violence. But those conflicts are never uttered or challenged by characters. No true discussion takes place and audiences are left with a reduced depiction of hillbilly misery.

One area I found Hillbilly Elegy to fall short in particular was the topic of substance abuse. Bev Vance is a former nurse who turns to prescription opioids and becomes addicted, causing much chaos and instability in her children’s lives. Years later, when J.D. is feeling success guilt in his upward mobility at Yale Law School, he learns his mother has overdosed on heroin.

The implications of the real-life opioid epidemic in America are truly fascinating from a sociological standpoint. The ongoing issue is multifaceted and requires a good look at the healthcare industry and social class.

Again, Hillbilly Elegy recognizes these pieces. Adams’ Bev is shown to have random outbursts of anger or mania, which we are led to believe is tied to the abuse in her home as a kid through more random flashbacks, setting up the character as somewhat of a trauma survivor. Her introduction to prescription painkillers at the hospital is also a familiar tale of everyday people turning to seemingly harmless, life-ruining substances. In a few shots of the present-day Middleton, viewers see boards on downtown windows and sketchy types loitering in parking lots, presumably engaging in drug deals. The midway point of the film hinges on the Vance siblings’ inability to secure their mother a bed overnight after her overdose without health insurance coverage.

But these moments are never connected or expanded upon to produce any one meaningful take on Bev’s addiction or Middleton’s downward spiral as a whole, for that matter.

The ongoing opioid epidemic has damaged entire communities and plunged generations of families into recidivist cycles of crime and incarceration. It is never raised that Bev Vance’s life path may be familiar; that the hospitals or rehab centers the Vances visit are overflowing with other folks with life-shattering chemical dependencies. When we consider that the opioid epidemic affects the masses, the film does a poor job of putting addiction into perspective and instead places blame on Bev, the misunderstood deadbeat mom.

Photo: Netflix

One criticism of Vance’s memoir which can be applied to the film is the author’s passing on the role of race and racism in his cultural analysis. Over time, parallels have been drawn between white communities’ turn to opioids in the last 30 years and the 1980’s crack epidemic and its impact on Black communities. Without so much as a glance toward racial issues, the film furthers itself from the realities of the opioid epidemic. Hillbilly Elegy removes culture from the one issue it should be examined broadly in.

Looking ahead to new entertainment that may better serve the complex issue, filming for Hulu’s miniseries Dopesick is set to begin in various Virginia locations soon. Executive producer Michael Keaton is taking on the project based on author Beth Macy’s bestseller Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America. The source material for the upcoming series is thorough in its history and full-bodied in its coverage of southwestern Virginia families whose lives are uprooted by opioids. Not only am I eager for my home state to receive widespread attention through streaming in this venture, but I look forward to seeing such a dire issue, which touches everyone’s hometown, addressed with more grace. 

Without the spine of a strong thesis, Hillbilly Elegy descends without raising hard questions, falling on the unexciting genre tropes of sappy, safe popcorn flicks, devoid of messaging that is nuanced or intelligent. Relying only then on pathos, Hillbilly Elegy even fails to make any true emotional gains when J.D. chooses to leave his family behind in the shrapnel of their lives. The Netflix original is an honest waste of good acting by Close and Adams on screenwriting that is gravely underdeveloped. There is suffering involved in true hillbilly culture, sure, but Hillbilly Elegy lacks the knowledge to assess why and the bravery to try to understand a hillbilly’s point of view.