A-Ron’s New Movie Reviews: “Hillbilly Elegy” (2020)

Ron Howard is back and has joined an elite group of Hollywood filmmakers to become a part of the Netflix family with his new film “Hillbilly Elegy”. Based on J.D. Vance’s best-selling memoir of the same name from 2016, Ron Howard’s film feels right at home on the streaming platform. In his 51 year career as a filmmaker, Ron Howard has always been drawn to true stories and loves to make movies about people (something he is great at). His 32nd feature “Hillbilly Elegy”, is all about both. It is the kind of movie that is made to get attention at the Oscar’s and it’s certainly a nomination shoe-in for Glenn Close in the best supporting actress category. While Amy Adams will also find herself nominated for best actress. I wouldn’t be surprised if you end up seeing it in the best picture category. “Hillbilly Elegy” bounces between timelines that effectively captures the endless legacy of a family’s struggle with addiction, abuse and poverty. Howard does what he does best and accomplishes what all of his best movies do by focusing first and foremost on the humanity of the characters, flaws and all. Ron Howard once again displays his usual deft touch for human drama and because of that it is one of his best films, because no one does true stories about real people quite like him. 

I can go on for hours about Ron Howard, his impact in movies and why he is one of the great filmmakers in Hollywood. I love him as a filmmaker and his films in which I have yet to find one that disappointed me. Looking over Ron Howard’s 51 year career as a filmmaker, from directing short films to movies to documentaries. Ron Howard has always been drawn to true stories and loves to make movies about people (something he is great at). His 32nd feature “Hillbilly Elegy” is all about both. 

Ron Howard directs his first Netflix film and joins some of Hollywood’s elite, such as directors David Fincher, Michael Bay, Martin Scorsese, The Coen Brothers and Steven Soderbergh. The production values of “Hillbilly Elegy” are as you might expect coming from a Ron Howard film…first rate. The film which is based on J.D. Vance’s best-selling memoir “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis from 2016, feels right at home on the streaming platform. 

Not only that but, “Hillbilly Elegy” is the kind of movie that is made to get attention at the Oscar’s. It’s certainly a nomination shoe-in for Glenn Close in the best supporting actress category, who has been nominated seven times with no wins. Although she was robbed and should have taken home the gold statue in 2017 for “The Wife”. Amy Adams will also find herself at the gala event but nominated in the best actress race (six Oscar nominations but no wins). Seeing as how we haven’t had any films released theatrically this year (due to the pandemic) and from what I’ve seen so far from Netflix, it sure looks like this years Oscar race will be dominated by the streaming giant. If that’s the case then you can count on seeing “Hillbilly Elegy” with a best picture nomination. 

Taking place in 2011, J.D. Vance (played by Gabriel Basso) has made it all the way to Yale Law School, but can never truly break free from the hold of his family, in particular his mother Bev (Amy Adams), who was once a promising student herself but had to give up her dreams to raise her children as she battled addiction and psychological troubles. “Hillbilly Elegy” toggles back and forth from the early 2010s to the mid 1990s, where young J.D. (Owen Asztalos) is trying his best to have a normal childhood that includes everything from friends to baseball cards to schoolwork. It all seems impossible with a drug addicted mother who experiences drastic and sometimes violent personality swings, one minute smiling and singing and showering her children with affection, the next smashing things, abusing her kids and screaming at the top of her lungs. It’s a toxic, abusive environment.

Penned by “The Shape of Water” screenwriter Vanessa Taylor, her strategy of bouncing between the past and present effectively captures a family’s endless legacy of addiction, abuse and poverty. While young J.D.’s time with his grandma (or Mamaw as he calls her), who is obviously hanging on by a thread both financially and physically as she teaches him hard earned lessons about life. While I never read the book nor have I even heard of J.D.’s story, it’s evidently clear that he wants us to see that family loyalty supersedes all of the troubles they face. When a family member is in need, you do what needs to be done regardless of the sacrifice. Whether that be coming through to help mom pass a drug test, or Mamaw skipping skipping her much needed prescriptions to buy that calculator that J.D. needs for school.

Ron Howard has very little actual interest in the ugly stuff and glossing over showing the drug use that cripples Vance’s mother. But Howard does what he does best and accomplishes what all of his best movies do by focusing first and foremost on the humanity of the characters, flaws and all. Howard who has dealt only a few times with family themes before (most notably “Parenthood”) really has a handle on how to get inside this one. Fans of the book, as well as those who have not read it, will see a film that cuts right to the heart of what makes family such an integral and inescapable part of our lives. While the movie is very much about Vance, “Hillbilly Elegy” will strike a chord well beyond his personal story.

Amy Adams as Beverly gives a tour de force performance, her performance is so good that we can see the flicker of pain in her eyes any time that she’s hurt or disappointed and we can see what’s coming to her. Adams takes an essentially unlikable character and gives her some color. It’s a tough role and Adams is brilliant, managing to never go over the top. Beverly is someone who is willing to hurt someone else in a tragically misguided effort to lessen the gravity of her own pain. She’s actually her own worst enemy, she gets fired from her job as a nurse, becomes involved in a series of questionable relationships and alienates young J.D. to the point where he has to go live with Bev’s mother, his Mamaw. 

Mamaw is played by an almost unrecognizable Glenn Close in a masterful, screen-commanding and pitch perfect performance. Although she looks incredibly and eerily similar to the real Mamaw, which you’ll see real home video footage of at the end of the movie. Mamaw’s a tough old bird, her favorite movie is “Terminator 2”, which she loves to quote and she’ll casually flip you a double bird and invite you to “perch and swivel”. But the thing about Mamaw is that while she is hard on J.D., she’s determined to help him break the generational cycle of abuse and disappointment in the family. She’s tough but unlike his mother, Mamaw only wants what’s best for J.D. and to really make something of himself, before his mother drags him down with her.

Close is just magnificent here, physically and emotionally ripping into Mamaw and delivering another unforgettable character in a career that has been full of them. Both Glenn Close and Amy Adams carry this film, but we also get outstanding work from actor Owen Asztalos, portraying the young J.D. in his youth and Gabriel Bass as J.D. in his college and adult years. Veteran character actor Bo Hopkins is Mamaw’s husband Papaw, Haley Bennett as J.D.’s older sister Lindsay and “Slumdog Millionaire” actress Freida Pinto as J.D.’s supportive girlfriend Usha.

If Ron Howard isn’t directing one of his big budget studio thrillers or adventure flicks (“DaVinci Code”, “In The Heart Of The Sea”, “Apollo 13”, etc.), then he isn’t one for flashy tricks and gimmicks. “Hillbilly Elegy” is neither of those, nor is it one of his best films. But on an acting level this is certainly one of the best displays of acting his films have achieved. And Ron Howard once again displays his usual deft touch for human drama and beautifully constructs an unforgiving, heart-tugging true story of real people. So in a sense, if you look at it that way then it is one of Ron Howard’s best films, because no one does true stories about real people quite like him. 

GRADE: ★★★★☆ (4 out of 5)

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros is the movie critic for Maui Watch. He lives on the beautiful island of Maui and is also a member of the elite Hawaii Film Critics Society and an active cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, where his Grandfather started his love for the movies.

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