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Review: 'Hillbilly Elegy'

We all love stories in which characters rise above overwhelming adversity and seemingly insurmountable odds.

Particularly when the stories are true. Or at least based on the truth.

J. D. Vance’s autobiographical novel "Hillbilly Elegy" (published in June of 2016) is a great example.

It’s a contemporary American small town drama about poverty, adversity, family values and the struggle to succeed when the cards seem to be stacked against you.

Director Ron Howard has made Hillbilly Elegy into a compelling movie starring Amy Adams, Haley Bennett and Glenn Close.

I’ve always had a lot of respect for Ron Howard, who began his career at a very early age.

He famously appeared as Opie Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show (1960 – 1968). Unlike many other child stars, he continued to work as he grew up and eventually stepped behind the camera and into the director’s chair.

His movies, including: Grand Theft Auto (1977), Night Shift (1982), Splash (1984), Apollo 13 (1995), and A Beautiful Mind (2001), are a testament to what he learned, growing up on movie sets.

He knows his stuff. It’s all up there on the big screen.

More than anything, Ron Howard is a storyteller, and Hillbilly Elegy is quite a story to tell.

It’s a complex story about a young boy’s struggle to rise above all the unfortunate circumstances that can work against us in our lives, holding us back and pushing our hopes and dreams out of reach.

In this case, it’s a mix of family and fate. It’s a world in which family is everything.

In the worst of times, your family has your back. But that becomes a strained mission when your family is troublingly dysfunctional and unreliable.

As a boy, the young J.D. Vance exists in a fatherless environment. Parenting is provided by his feisty mom Bev (Amy Adams) and his crusty grandmother, Mamaw (Glenn Close).

His other pillar of support is his sympathetic older sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett).

Bev is a bright, hard-working, single parent mom struggling with the pressures of raising two kids while fighting inner demons and self-destructive behavior.

Amy Adams tackles the demanding role with the formidable talent that she’s brought to so many challenging roles. She convincingly portrays the fresh-faced young mom who later evidences the ravages of substance abuse and psychological trauma.

Glenn Close once again reminds us of the superstar talent she’s brought to the screen so many times.

Her portrayal of Mamaw is a no-holds-barred submersion into the foul-mouthed, hard-as-nails, cigarette-smoking matriarch with an unwavering sense of homespun duty and responsibility.

She becomes J.D.’s emotional anchor and steady beacon of light through the most difficult episodes of his growth and development.

Haley Bennett, once again, demonstrates her talent and versatility as a performer.

For me, she was a stand-out talent as far back as her supporting role in her debut feature film Music and Lyrics (2007) when she played the charmingly vacuous pop diva Cora Corman, to pitch perfect perfection.

In Hillbilly Elegy, women are the central figures in the life of J.D. Vance. And that includes one other female character, Usha (played by Freida Pinto) who is his always-supportive, guardian-angel of a college girlfriend.

On some level, Hillbilly Elegy plays like an angst-filled daytime soap opera on steroids, about a likeable, almost saint-like main character struggling to break away from the myriad of forces intent on scuttling his hopes and ambitions.

Much of the story is heart-wrenching and a bit depressing.

Without giving away too much, it is, in the end, like so many similar movies, an inspiring tale of success in the face of unrelenting adversity. It ends on a positive note.

As we’ve come to expect, end credits include the obligatory post-script notes letting us know what became of the major characters in real life.

Also, as is the case with movies like this, we are shown side-by-side shots of the actors and the actual, real-life people they portrayed.

In this case, the resemblance is pretty remarkable. The kind of attention to detail that you’d expect from a veteran filmmaker like Ron Howard.

There is something to be said about actors who sometimes go on to become directors. What they bring to the job is a real understanding of actors and acting.

They understand acting. They understand the process more intimately and can offer more sensitivity and guidance.

You could argue that they have a better sense of when it’s best to back off and not get in the way of a major talent and their instincts.

Whatever the case, there seems to be some chemistry between Ron Howard and Glenn Close.

The seven-time Oscar nominated actress turns in yet another stellar performance deserving of a statuette. This time around, her work should be recognized and justly rewarded.

It’s long overdue.


Hillbilly Elegy is in select theaters today and available to stream on Netflix on November 24.

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