Netflix's Hillbilly Elegy Is about Redemption, Not Just Tragedy, J.D. Vance Says

Michael Foust | Contributor | Wednesday, December 9, 2020
Netflix's <em>Hillbilly Elegy</em> Is about Redemption, Not Just Tragedy, J.D. Vance Says

Netflix's Hillbilly Elegy Is about Redemption, Not Just Tragedy, J.D. Vance Says

The author of Hillbilly Elegy is defending a Netflix depiction against charges it’s too gloomy and tragic, saying the story promotes redemption and resilience – not misfortune.

Author J.D. Vance, whose boyhood story forms the basis of the book and Netflix movie, told Christian Headlines he hopes viewers are encouraged by the story, even if much of it is tough to watch. The film follows Vance’s boyhood story as he grows up in an impoverished, unstable home with a mom addicted to drugs. It is rated R for extensive language, drug content and some violence.

“To me, it's a story about a boy’s redemption, and also resilience,” Vance told Christian Headlines. “You can't have redemption and resilience unless you have tragedy, and the struggle that comes before it.”

The Netflix film shows Vance being rescued out of a bad home by a tough-nosed grandmother (played by Glenn Close) who teaches him discipline. Instead of becoming addicted to drugs – as his mom and friends are – he goes to college and law school. Although the film shows his mother in rehab, in real life she’s been sober for six years. (Viewers learn that news in the final moments.)

“Mom is sober. She's got a great relationship with my kids – her grandkids. People are just doing well,” he said. “I think that, to me, is the most important thing. It's not just tragedy upon tragedy. … At least for us [it is a] tragedy that has led somewhere much more hopeful and much more positive.”

Vance also hopes the Netflix film can encourage those in similar situations to his.

"You have to try to forgive the people who you feel may have wronged you, you have to try to understand them and have some empathy towards them,” Vance said. “And if you're not, you're just going to be an angry kid. Maybe you achieve some measure of success, but you're never actually going to be a whole and complete and happy person, unless you sort of appreciate your family.”

Vance said he wrote the story to help society better understand those who grow up in impoverished homes with opioid addiction.

“I really wanted to give people sort of an insider's tale,” he said. “...  I thought if people sort of understood these problems, not as academic abstractions, but as real problems faced by real people, that they'd gain some empathy and some understanding and think about them in a slightly different way.”

Photo courtesy: ©Netflix

Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chroniclethe Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.