Biopics are familiar territory for Ron Howard. In a film career spanning nearly four decades. He has made some of the most well-known biographical films in the history of American cinema, including the highly celebrated ‘Apollo 13’ and ‘A beautiful ghost‘. A common theme that resonates in almost all of Ron’s works is the ultimately uplifting pursuit of the American Dream. His outing for 2020,’Hillbilly Elegy‘, centers on three generations of the Vance family and their collective desire for happiness while holding on to their Appalachian values.
Hillbilly Elegy Plot Synopsis
The film Hillbilly Elegy is based on the memoir of the same name by JD Vance. The non-linear story has two different storylines that together ultimately give the film a coherent ending. One story follows JD (Owen Asztalos) when he is in his early teens. While in the other – about 14 years later – JD (Gabriel Basso) is a Yale student seeking an internship at a law firm in Washington. So that he can move there with his girlfriend, Usha (Freida Pinto).
JD grew up in Middletown, Ohio, although he always considered himself to be from Jackson, Kentucky. It’s where his grandparents, Mamaw (Glenn Close) and Papaw (Bo Hopkins), come from. Every year the family spends some time there. But it’s not their home, as much as JD would like it to be. While they will always be rooted in Kentucky, their home is in Ohio. JD’s grandparents were the ones who first moved there when they weren’t much older than JD is now. However, their pursuit of happiness turned out not to be the way they wanted it to be.
As we learn later, the marriage was abusive and left irreparable psychological and emotional imprints on their two daughters, Bev (Amy Adams) and Lori. Mamaw and Papaw have since split up and have lived in different homes. Bev, who is JD and the mother of his sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett), has fared no better than her parents with her children. Her life has become a succession of forgettable men. She is a registered nurse, but can’t seem to hold a job. She has drug problems that are getting worse. It is her children who often take care of her.
When JD starts using marijuana and destroys a property with his friends, Mamaw decides it’s time for her to intervene. After JD moves in with Mamaw, her firm but loving influence gradually changes him. He enlists in the US Marines and serves in Iraq. After returning to civilian life. He goes to the state of Ohio before enrolling in Yale Law School. In 2011, he is competing for the internship when Lindsay calls him and tells him that Bev overdosed on heroin.
Hillbilly Elegy ends
The plot shifts back and forth between the younger and older JD as he travels from New Haven, Connecticut, to Middletown to see his mother. There is a certain amount of guilt in him when it comes to his sister, Lindsay. She now has her own family, but because she never left her hometown. The responsibility to take care of their mother almost automatically fell on her.
What JD doesn’t understand in that brief moment of hubris about his success is that his sister found happiness in her own way. Lindsay is married to a man she has been in love with since she was a teenager and is a wonderful mother to her three children. She has clearly managed to overcome the precedence of her mother and grandmother.
JD must put everything on hold as he returns to his old life, including the internship and even his relationship with Usha. When he first learns that he has been selected for the final round of the interview, he is genuinely happy. But then the guilt returns and that brings frustration. He knows that if he starts driving soon, he will be in New Haven in time for the interview.
But seeing how volatile Bev has become, JD balances between his responsibility as a son and his hopes of making the American Dream a reality. It’s Lindsay who then comes to his rescue and scolds him for making them his excuse. She knows he’s scared because he’s so close to reaching his lifelong goals. More importantly, she knows if JD misses this opportunity. He will blame them for the rest of his life, as well as himself.
Part of JD’s attempt to hide aspects of his family from Usha stems from his sense of shame. Again, it’s Lindsay who advises her brother to let his girlfriend in. It turns out they have more in common than he initially thought. After all, she was born into an immigrant family and has seen her fair share of struggles. He talks about her with Bev as he drives her around town. She first refuses to be admitted to a rehabilitation center.
JD then takes Bev to her boyfriend’s house, who throws her clothes away and demands that they leave. On his sister’s advice, he takes Bev to a motel, still unsure whether to go or stay. But when he stops his mother from injecting herself with heroin, he realizes he can’t save her. Bev used to be a good student and had a bright future ahead of him. But after her life got out of hand, she never recovered.
Bev’s mom and dad weren’t there for her. When Mamaw took on the responsibility of raising JD. It was her way of making up for her failure with Bev. Although Mamaw dies several years after JD joins the Marines, the impression she left on him is lasting. He remembers his grandmother’s words and runs away from his unstable mother. “…where we come from is who we are, but we choose who we become every day.”
When JD walks into the interrogation room, he accepts that he is part of a legacy he shares with other members of his family, both dead and alive. At the same time, he looks forward to what is to come. The film ends after informing the public that the real JD Vance and Usha are married and have two children. Bev has been sober for six years and her life now revolves around her five grandchildren. The film also reveals that JD has moved back to Ohio with his family. Apparently he has indeed found the American Dream, or rather its modern rendition.