The Incredible True Story Behind Hillbilly Elegy

Directed by Ron Howard (‘Apollo 13’, ‘A Beautiful Mind’), ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ is a poignant film about a family’s collective desire to attain the American Dream. Its non-linear storyline follows the central character J.D. Vance (Owen Asztalos and Gabriel Basso) in two different stages of his life. The younger J.D. is forced to deal with his volatile and abusive mother, Bev (Amy Adams), and her rapidly deteriorating substance abuse problems.

After escaping that life with the help of his grandmother (Glenn Close), the older J.D. returns when his sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett) informs him that their mother has overdosed on heroin. Following the film’s release, it received mixed reviews, with many critics praising the performances of the cast. The movie’s vivid depiction of its characters’ desperate yearnings to escape the Rust Belt ruins of Ohio must have made you wonder whether it is based on real-life events. Here is what we have been able to find out!

Is Hillbilly Elegy Based on a True Story?

Yes, ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ is based on a true story. Screenwriter Vanessa Taylor wrote the script based on the 2016 namesake memoir of venture capitalist and author J.D. Vance. As the film shows, although he was born and raised in Middletown, Ohio, his family is from Kentucky. Since his childhood, J.D.’s grandparents and mother imparted to him the values of Appalachian culture. He also witnessed firsthand the catastrophic effects that the vanishing industries are having on the Rust Belt.

J.D.’s rise from such harrowing circumstances to the incredible things he achieved later in his life is truly remarkable. The idea of writing a memoir wasn’t originally J.D.’s. Amy Chua, the bestselling author of the 2011 memoir ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,’ who was one of his professors at Yale, suggested it to him. The book was an instant success after it came out and sold even more copies after the 2016 U.S. Election. For many, it serves as a guidebook that explains why millions of white working-class Americans voted for Donald Trump.

Image Credit: Bonnie Meibers/J.D. Vance

Many of the disturbing incidents shown in the film did actually happen to J.D. and his family. His grandmother did try to set her husband on fire after he came home drunk one night. The product of such a turbulent upbringing, Bev ended up being even a worse parent to J.D. and Lindsay. Their father deserted the family when the children were quite young, and Bev was incapable of taking care of them.

Lindsay, who is five years older than J.D., often protected her brother from her mother’s drug-induced rage. Whenever it became too much to handle, even for her, she called their grandmother. She found her own escape after marrying her teenage sweetheart Kevin. For J.D., things got way worse before they got better. In another incident depicted in the film, Bev speeds up the car after an argument with J.D. and threatens to crash it. This happened to J.D. in real life and led to Bev’s arrest.

It is what prompted his grandmother to step in and bring J.D. to live with her. By this time, she was a changed woman and was able to provide him with something that she failed to give to her daughter, a safe home. Under her care, J.D. thrived. After graduating from high school, he enlisted in the US Marines and served in Iraq. According to J.D., his time in the military brought him practical knowledge about how to deal with the modern world.

He then went to Yale, where he enrolled for a law degree after graduating from Ohio State. J.D.’s experience in Yale prepared him for the upper tier of society. J.D. of today is a culmination of all these parts of his life. He married his college sweetheart Usha (Freida Pinto in the film), and they have two sons together. Lindsay and Kevin have three children of their own. Mamaw passed away at some point after J.D. enlisted.

As of 2020, Bev has been sober for six years, and her life now mostly involves spending time with her five grandchildren. Before the birth of his first child, J.D. moved back to Ohio with Usha. Many in media speculate that they did this because he has plans of joining politics in the future. He seems evasive whenever he is asked that question. Considering how deeply he cares about the people in the Rust Belt, J.D. can usher in real changes to the region as a politician.

Read More: Where Was Hillbilly Elegy Filmed?