It has been a half decade since Ron Howard directed a movie other than a documentary. His return to the scripted world comes through “Hillbilly Elegy,” the story of family struggle based on the best-selling book by J.D. Vance.
The story that lured Howard back to the feature film fold fits with the kind of project that has fascinated him for years. Whether it was “Rush,” “In the Heart of the Sea” or even “Angels & Demons,” Howard has shown a tendency to tell tales of men facing major hurdles in their lives.
In the case of “Hillbilly Elegy,” the hurdles are constructed of the raw emotions Vance had to deal with while growing up in southern Ohio. After being able to claw his way out of the cesspool of poverty, drugs and abuse he faced while growing up, Vance has reached a point of personal success only to have it threatened by the life he can’t escape.
It is the struggle to find hope and positivity while carrying a lodestone of grief and regret that Howard is able to tell with elegance and emotion. Some of the story is emotionally broad – most likely caused by the story being based on Vance’s real recollections of his own life. But, when it settles into smaller moments the movie shines.
Vance (Gabriel Basso) is a former Marine and current Yale Law student. He is facing the biggest week of his life with job interviews. His efforts have to be put on hold when he gets a phone call urging him to come home to deal with his drug-addicted mother, Bev (Amy Adams). Vance returns to the hometown that is rich with loving memories and rife with painful ones.
“Hillbilly Elegy” is told through three time periods. Most of the film is set during Vance’s adult years but there is a heavy dose of flashbacks. This is where the groundwork is set for the emotional barriers Vance would have to face all his life.
His mother shifts from a loving person to an out-of-control addict who eventually creates a world too painful for Vance. He moves in with his grandmother, Mamaw (Glenn Close) who shows how emotional distancing can be hereditary.
The movie is at its best when Close is on the screen. And, she has buried herself so deeply in the character it takes a few moments to realize how much she has disguised herself to play the role.
Close has the task of making the grandmother caring enough to come to the aid of her grandson but not open enough to show real acts of love. Her’s is a world where compassion can only be suggested and never freely exposed.
If there is any justice in the entertainment world, this will be the year that Close finally takes home an Oscar. She has been nominated seven times but doesn’t have a statue. Giving her the award this year simply would not be an act of kindness but a legitimate recognition of a performance that is so beautifully and powerfully delivered.
Howard’s portrait of this complex Appalachian family has its uneven moments. A lot of those come from Adams who never finds solid acting footing playing the role of the dysfunctional mother. It is still good work but there’s no doubt Adams is so talented that she could have done better.
In the end, “Hillbilly Elegy” finds strength in a deep truth that so many families face. It would be nice if everything was always perfect but as Howard has shown in so many movies and continues here, life is a messy situation. The final chapter is how a person deals with that messiness and this film shows that with some that can mean very heartfelt and heartbreaking moments.
The film is playing in local theaters. If you are still hesitant to go to local theaters, it will be available through Netflix starting Nov. 24.
3 1/2 stars
Cast: Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Gabriel Basso, Bo Hopkins, Sunny Mabry.
Director: Ron Howard
Rated: R for violence, language, drug use
Running time: 115 minutes.