In Brief: An intense drama about family. The family is dysfunctional, director Ron Howard’s movie is not.
An elegy is defined as a poem of serious reflection. The word is often used as a lament for the dead. In the case of Hillbilly Elegy, it’s a little of both. Depressingly so but in a good movie sort of way.
Instead of good, let’s define Hillbilly Elegy as a great movie.
The movie is based on J.D. Vance’s longer-named autobiography. His book is titled Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. The movie is more about the family than the culture and it’s a sometimes tough tale to watch.
But that’s in a good way. The movie is definitely difficult but it is also brilliantly put together by Ron Howard who is a master at storytelling.
Vance was abused as a child by his drug-addicted mother. Most of the abuse was verbal but she could get physical from time to time. Vance was also highly influenced by his grandmother.
Hillbilly Elegy is written by Vanessa Taylor who penned The Shape of Water and a few episodes of Game of Thrones. She’s an exceptional writer who does everything but actually put you in the shoes of Vance as a child and as an adult.
By the way, the movie will have an even bigger impact on those whose childhoods resembled something close to Vance’s. People who had angry and bitter parents, or parents whose focus was totally on themselves will relate to the struggle and may find many of Howard’s scenes uncomfortable.
Four performances stand out and two are pushing award-nomination territory. Perhaps this is the year that Glenn Close finally gets a long-deserved Oscar to go on the mantle next to her three Golden Globes.
Close plays Vance’s grandmother and the only person in the boy’s life who seems to care as much about him as she does herself. Howard makes the chameleon-like Close look like a life-weary woman whose road through life has been chock-full of potholes.
Couched in unflattering clothes and Mr. Magoo-like glasses and with a constant cigarette burning between her fingers, Close plays Mamaw as uncompromising in places yet soft and pliable in others. The stance confuses the boy but at the same time she’s the one constant he needed to become the man he eventually became.
It’s the best acting I’ve seen by anyone this year in any category.
Also quite good is Owen Asztalos who plays J.D. as a kid. This is a really tough role for a young actor. Asztalos is not only talented but he is already a master at using facial expressions and body language to convey the pain, the anger and the confusion of a pre-teen and teenager trapped by a life he didn’t choose, and exposed to the insanity put in his path by his mother.
The film’s fulcrum is J.D. as an adult. He’s done by Gabriel Basso (2013’s The Kings of Summer). Howard tells J.D.’s story through his eyes and weaves the narrative together through flashbacks from past that stretch into the present and then back again.
Amy Adams plays the boy’s junkie mom, Bev. Adams — like Close — has a zillion Oscar nominations and no wins. She did pick up a Golden Globe for Tim Burton’s Big Eyes. Adams — as she showed in Vice, American Hustle and a couple of other films — is an incredible actress.
Bev is an addict and like all addicts, all blame for her shortfalls and the addiction, and for everything, is someone else’s. Adams punctuates the performance by majoring in quite convincing meltdowns.
Hillbilly Elegy — the movie — can’t miss for Oscar, Golden Globe and other movie award nominations. You also have to include Howard in that picture. In the last couple of years he’s focused more on documentaries (The Beatles: Eight Days a Week, Pavarotti and this year’s Rebuilding Paradise) than doing movies for “entertainment.”
The last fictional work he did was Solo: A Star Wars Story in 2018.
Like this one, Howard’s best films have been movies about real people. He picked up a couple of Oscars and other awards for A Beautiful Mind and got critical praise for the In the Heart of the Sea, the story of how the book Moby Dick was written.
And now Hillbilly Elegy.
No director working today can tell a story as well as Howard. He takes Vance’s 264 page book and condenses it down into a straightforward message. Howard brilliantly — and sometimes uncomfortably — says you can be from and a part of your past, but you can also move forward. Moving forward, however, is easier said than done. The past is a magnet forever trying to drag you back and convince you that your destiny is what you once were and the life you used to have.
Along with deserved acting nods for Close and Asztalos and maybe Adams and Basso, I’m thinking this one grabs nominations for best director, best picture and — no doubt — best adapted screenplay.
Hillbilly Elegy is the holiday season’s first must-see movie.
Director: Ron Howard
Stars: Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Gabriel Basso, Owen Asztalos, Haley Bennett, Freida Pinto, Bo Hopkins
Rated R for mature themes, language and some violence. Give this one my highest rating, a 5 on the Friday Flicks with Gary o to 5. scale.
You can stream Hillbilly Elegy on Netflix.
Gary Wolcott has been reviewing movies on radio, television and newspaper since 1990. He believes — and this is an estimate only — that he’s seen something close to 10,000 movies in his lifetime. Gary is a lifelong fan of films and catches a couple of hundred movies a year. He believes movies ought to be seen on the big screen and not on the small screen in your living room or family room. While he loves movies, he also says reviewing film can be a real sacrifice and that he sees many movies so you don’t have to.
He is one of KXL 101.1 FM’s film critics and joined the news staff in 2014. Gary is also the film critic for Tri-Cities, Washington’s Tri-City Herald.