Haley Bennett as Lindsay, Glenn Close as Mamaw and Owen Asztalos as the young J.D. Vance. Photograph: Lacey Terrell/NETFLIX © 2020
“I’ve always believed that I do my best work from age fifty to sixty-five,” director Ron Howard said in an interview in the 1990s.
Now, with a career at the director’s seat spanning four decades, Howard, 66, makes his feature-length Netflix drama with Hillbilly Elegy, and it’s one of those movies you will not forget.
Most films that Ron Howard has helmed are movies you tend to remember for a lifetime.
From the first time, you saw the extravagant fantasy Willow (1988) to the breath-taking Apollo 13 (1995), even the Da Vinci trilogy (2006-2016), and my all-time favorite, A Beautiful Mind (2001).
Hillbilly Elegy is based on J.D. Vance’s bestselling book, a memoir of survival and triumph of three generations through their struggles in Appalachia, Eastern United States.
With the help of screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (Divergent, Game of Thrones), Howard gives us a complex tale with twists and turns and a glimpse into the lives of those who give up. And to those who do not.
Mamaw, played by Glenn Close, is one of those who never give up. She’s the grandma, the matriarch of the family, and Close delivers one of the strongest performances of an iron-willed, polished-by-life female to embrace the screen. (The real Mamaw passed away in 2005, but in the production notes, the descendants describe Close’s portrayal like “Mamaw was alive again.”)
Amy Adams gives us another tour-de-force portrayal but from the opposite spectrum. Her torch is slowly fading, and this is what makes Adams’ performance as the troubled mother, Bev, so intriguing.
Adams boasts a long list of memorable roles in her resume including her portrayal of a linguist attempting to talk with alien lifeforms in Arrival (2016)—and while she brings the necessary sprinkle of estrogen as Lois Lane in the recent Superman films—for any resemblance to her role as Bev, we have to look back a decade to The Fighter (2010), where she played a been-there-done-that bartender.
And while looking for likeness to her latest performance, we are reminded that she’s also played housewives, cunning masterminds, painters, daughters—and we are reminded just how capable and adroit Adams is as an actor.
While Hillbilly Elegy is carried by a solid story, this film garners its strength from the strong female lead. Men are merely sidekicks that spring the women into action.
Some men may benefit from being around such women, but whatever the benefit, even that is channeled through the lives of the females.
In essence, Hillbilly Elegy is what Howard has called a “celebration.” It’s a story about people who overcome obstacles. His best works follow this formula.
Conquering obstacles is also the story of Howard’s life: since his career as a child actor in the ’60s, and since his silver screen debut Splash (1984), film after film, Howard first had to face the critics to be taken seriously while always wanting to make something better than his last effort.
Undoubtedly, Hillbilly Elegy belongs to the long list of his most memorable films.
‘Hillbilly Elegy’ is playing on Netflix now.