Adapted by Oscar nominee Vanessa Taylor (“The Shape of Water”) from J.D. Vance’s bestselling memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy” is exactly the sort of mainstream heart-tugger that many moviegoers and Oscar voters embrace. Ron Howard knows what he is doing. He’s been to the Oscar party many times, from “Apollo 13” to “Frost/Nixon” and “A Beautiful Mind,” which all featured actors (Tom Hanks, Frank Langella, and Russell Crowe, respectively) in top form.
Howard’s stock-in-trade studio drama is harder to come by these days. Always a canny Hollywood player (with his Imagine Entertainment partner Brian Grazer), Howard pivoted over the past decade to more indie-minded projects such as “Rush” and documentaries like “Rebuilding Paradise.”
Netflix backed “Hillbilly Elegy,” a resonant family story that will likely lure far more viewers than the movie might have generated in theaters, COVID or no. In fact, it’s likely that no studio would have backed this, even with two of the great overlooked Oscar-contenders in Hollywood history above the marquee, Amy Adams (six nominations) and Glenn Close (seven).
Taylor’s script steers clear of Vance’s conservative politics, which dominated the book. Howard provides nuanced direction and a roving camera team led by documentary cinematographer Maryse Alberti. The two stars deliver grounded performances that could easily have flown over the top in less expert hands.
Close is family matriarch Mamaw, who fled Kentucky as a young girl with her husband (Bo Hopkins) and raised her family in Southern Ohio; Adams is Bev, the nurse who never finds her footing after a hardscrabble childhood. (I could have watched more of the underutilized Hopkins, who always exuded power and menace in such movies as “Midnight Express” and “The Wild Bunch.”) Yale law grad Vance is played by two actors, teenager Owen Asztalos and twentysomething Gabriel Basso.
Hopkins plays Vance’s stooped grandfather, who did some damage over time to Vance’s fragile mother Bev, who now relies on drugs and alcohol to get by. She keeps getting bailed out of trouble by her family: young aspiring lawyer J.D., his sister (excellent Haley Bennett), and grandmother Mamaw. “Mom’s been screwing a dirtbag junkie,” one sibling informs the other when he returns to deal with Bev’s latest heroin overdose.
One issue for accessible melodramas like this is that critics tend to resist them, no matter how tapped into reality. The movie will score big on Netflix, and Academy actors, costume designers, and hair and makeup branches will likely respond to the craft that backed these emotional performances. Hans Zimmer and David Fleming provide an effective heartland-tinged score.
While self-described nationalist Vance is grabbing negative attention on social media for his politics, Netflix made sure to open this movie post-election, when his toxic invective won’t have as much impact. Hollywood recognizes the difference between a book and its author and a fictional movie adaptation. But many readers of the bestseller will find much of what they liked missing.
“Hillbilly Elegy” will open in select theaters on Wednesday, November 11, before it releases globally on Netflix on Tuesday, November 24.
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