Reel Dad: Glenn Close and Amy Adams star in family drama ‘Hillbilly Elegy’

Moviemakers teach us how to watch movies.

We know, from the movies, that sad or scary music can lead to something sad or scary. We quickly learn to get ready to chuckle when the visuals start to exaggerate. And we soon see how moviemakers love to reveal what happens inside complex families. There’s just something in the ways people who love also hate, people who please seem to disappoint, and people who express and find things to hide that bring out the best in cinema. Even when films focus on people at their worst.

The film is based on J.D. Vance’s memoir, “Hillbill Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis.” Vance graduated from Yale in 2013.

Ron Howard’s well-intentioned adaptation of the memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” finds its way home by drawing on movie moments we may remember. From “Precious” the director borrows a mother who amplifies her own weaknesses through her child; from “Terms of Endearment” he offers a parent who depends on her child to define the family roles; and, from “Hud,” he introduces a wise grandparent who tries to fill in what a parent fails to provide. Still, as often as “Hillbilly Elegy” uses our movie memories to connect its narrative dots, the film does offer fresh insight into the damage and drive that parents and grandparents can inflict on and leave with the children they raise.

Summary: Hillbilly Elegy

Content: High. The story of a young man trying to find himself amidst a sea of family dysfunction offers meaningful lessons in love, patience and hope.

Entertainment: High. While the film is filled with meaning, its thorough look at its characters makes us want to get to know these people and everything they face.

Message: High. Ron Howard uses approaches we may remember from the movies to inform the cinema language he uses to tell his story.

Relevance: High. Any opportunity to learn more about what families experience, and why, is essential as we search for ways to build bridges with those we love.

Opportunity for Dialogue: High. While this is not a film for the entire family, it can open positive conversation with older teenagers about issues that families can face.

The narrative focuses on a collected, driven J.D. Vance who finds himself at Yale, in law school, awaiting interviews for clerk positions. An urgent telephone call from home forces him to return to the scene of family dysfunction so he can help his mother. Through flashbacks, we return to key moments in this man’s childhood as he tries to balance the love and hate freely flowing from his mom with the complex caring dispensed by his grandmother. As each declares victory following rounds of battle, the impressionable J.D. tries to protect himself from the crossfire. Only when he reaches into himself can he begin to imagine a world without the noise these people effortlessly create.

Howard finds a way to tell his story by relying on movie moments we remember. As we look into Amy Adams’ eyes, we recall what we learned from Mary Tyler Moore’s ice-cold matriarch in “Ordinary People;” when we feel the regret of Glenn Close, as the grandmother, we recall how Alan Arkin, as the grandparent in “Little Miss Sunshine,” tried to fix the breakage inside the family. Howard lets the lessons from the movies we remember help his movie make its lessons more accessible. And this choice usually works.

What certainly works is the performance from Close. This chameleon of an actor once again invests in a complex character with the level of intensity she first brought to “Fatal Attraction” and “Dangerous Liaisons” almost 35 years ago. Close delivers a riveting look at a woman desperate to stop a roller coaster that defines her family. While the character is exaggerated, Close relies on her instinct and ability to underplay to stop this portrayal from becoming a caricature, making sure we see what’s happening on the inside.

Yes, moviemakers love movies about families. For almost two hours, “Hillbilly Elegy” welcomes us to visit with people trying to figure out how to solve challenges they don’t understand. And, through it all, we see what may stand in the way of any family relationships in the movies, and at home.

“Hillbilly Elegy” is Rated R for “language throughout, drug content and some violence.” The film runs 1 hour, 56 minutes, and is available, starting Nov. 24 on Netflix.