‘Hillbilly Elegy’ Summary & Analysis – A Stirring Portrayal of Shared Legacy


Ron Howard doesn’t make films, he makes Cinema. 24 frames per second on-screen coated with so many moving emotions that to stop your tears is inevitable. People might not remember what joke they laugh at, what VFX bowled them over or what action took their breath away, but they will always remember how they felt in a film. That is why we remember Howard’s film be it, A Beautiful Mind, Rush, or Apollo 13.  His 2020 directorial release, Hillbilly Elegy (film) is another ace addition to his vibrant filmography.

Hillbilly Elegy (film) is based on the memoir of the same name written by J. D. Vance. The film is approached from J.D’s perspective, played beautifully by Gabriel Basso (adult J.D.). He takes you on a tale that portrays his conflicted childhood while growing up in Appalachian values with his divorced mother, aging grandmother, and sister.

‘Hillbilly Elegy’ Summary

The film doesn’t follow a linear narrative. It is told in nostalgia by J.D. who remembers his childhood. Supported by J.D.’s voice over, the narrative quickly establishes the prominent characters of the story i.e. J.D.’s conflicted mother, Beverly “Bev” Vance (Amy Adams), his aging grandmother, Bonnie “Mamaw” Vance (Glenn Close), and his helpless sister, Lindsay Vance (Haley Bennett). With quick cuts, the time flies, and J.D now an adult, fourteen years later is attending Yale’s law school and working odd jobs to support his education. J.D.’s girlfriend Usha (Freida Pinto) has earned a summer internship in Washington and J.D. is hustling to interview for the same. He visits a dinner night to strengthen his connections and chances of summer internship but is extremely nervous. However, just before he was going to make a mark, J.D.’s sister, Linsday informs him that their mother, Bev has overdosed on Heroin, and J.D. should instantly come to see her. J.D. in dilemma screws the dinner with his interviewer and leaves for Ohio to attend his mother.

Hereafter, through several flashbacks, we learn about Bev and her relationship with J.D. and her sister Linsday. Bev works as a nurse in Ohio but suffers from an existential crisis. She was the smartest woman in her class but yet didn’t amount to much because there was no one to support her or her goals. She lives in guilt that is one of the reasons for her violent nature and constant lookout for validation. It is J.D. who has to go through her emotional turmoil that disturbs his mental balance as well. But as per grandma, Mamaw, there are many secrets in the past that mold our personality, and the same is true with Bev. She wasn’t always like this but how did she become one? The narrative explores this transformation thoroughly and how it affects J.D. himself is underlined further.

Strings of Childhood Traumas

The film begins with a line where J.D. looks at Mamaw and Papaw and says, “When I was a kid, I couldn’t make sense of it. Imagining Mamaw at almost my same age just running, pregnant from everything she knew, every scrap of the family she had.

It is 14 years later, J.D. learns the answer to this question. Everyone in the family was running away from something, and they never settled it properly. The unfinished business of the past kept haunting the present.

I feel Hillbilly Elegy (film) revolves around Bev because all strings are somehow attached to her. Why was Bev so muddled up? Mamaw, at some point, reveals the secret that his husband Papaw, might be a good lover but not at all fit to be called a perfect husband or a good father. He used to beat Mamaw after coming home drunk and wasted. Bev and her sister have to face that trauma every day. Bev was intelligent and smart but due to the lack of emotional, mental, and financial support, she didn’t know what to do with that talent. She took the work that was offered to her but it never matched her abilities. The thought of not amounting to much kept haunting her. Mamaw always blamed herself for Bev’s turnout and that is why she kept saving her, bailing her, and giving her a plethora of second chances.

Repeating the Legacy, Over and Over

Bev started doing heroin and drugs, and that became her escape from reality and all the haunting thoughts she had. It is true I guess, Family is our greatest teacher and influencer. If gone unchecked, we somehow repeat the legacy over and over. When it comes to  J.D., the third generation going to the same drain, Mamaw finally intervenes.

In a very striking scene, Mamaw lying on the hospital bed scrutinizes J.D.’s actions after a violent act with few ragged kids of the locality. Mamaw removes the injection tapes and leaves the hospital without anyone’s knowledge. She takes J.D. under her own wings and makes it her commitment not to let J.D. become another version of his mother or his grandfather.

J.D.’s relationship with his mother was never a good one. He respects her for putting herself through nursing school as a single mother and what she became after that was a total nightmare. J.D.’s confusion about whether to love his mother or hate her is visible throughout the film and Ron Howard has beautifully showcased that on screen. It is mesmerizing. A character suffering from so many doubts is always a treat in Cinema because it holds the layer where you play with emotions. A perfect example of it would be, when J.D. comes back to Ohio and is trying to get a room for his mother so she doesn’t end up dead or OD’d again, he gets utterly frustrated. He had all reasons to be, first of all, he has a life-changing interview the next day, and his sister refuses to take Bev to her house because of her own kids, and their mother doesn’t have medical insurance to get herself admitted in an institution. With so many conflicts in and around his mind, J.D. screams at Bev. It is when Linsday tells David that he is repeating the same mistakes Bev did at her young age, to be in guilt and remorse. J.D. counters Linsday saying why she is defending Bev because Bev has always been cruel to Linsday.

“I can’t defend her, but I’m trying to forgive her. If you don’t, you’re never gonna get out of what you’re trying to get out of.”


J.D.’s constant struggle throughout is not to end up like his mother and that’s what the whole film is trying to explore, whether his choices would be a repetition of the family legacy or will he break the chain. In the end, J.D. creates a new path and life for himself. And remembers Mamaw who was the only savior he had. He still misses him.

“Twice I needed to be rescued. The first time it was Mamaw who saved me. The second, it was what she taught me. That where we come from is who we are, but we choose every day who we become. My family is not perfect, but they made me who I am and gave me the chances that they never had. My future, whatever it is, is our shared legacy.”


Now, here comes the secret. Hans Zimmer along with David Fleming filled the background with his emotional score. If you have seen the film or might plan to watch it, listen to the music in each scene and realize what music can do if treated in the right manner. It is the artistry of Zimmer that amplifies each emotion and heightens it till it reaches your core. With an overly moving story and Howard’s filmmaking combined with Zimmer’s score, the film comes out as a work of art that one can’t stop, but stand still and cherish.

Hillbilly Elegy (film) is based on the true story of J. D. Vance, and I don’t know how much on the screen is true. I only know one thing, how it made me feel. And I felt emotional. Robert Bresson quotes, “I’d rather people feel a film before understanding it. I’d rather feelings arise before intellect.” Enough said, If you haven’t watched Hillbilly Elegy (film), do stream it right away. It is not something you should miss.

Hillbilly Elegy (film) is streaming on Netflix.

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Shikhar Agrawal
Shikhar Agrawal
I am an Onstage Dramatist and a Screenwriter. I have been working in the Indian Film Industry for the past 12 years, writing dialogues for various films and television shows.

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