hillbilly elegy real characters
Source: Lacey Terrell/Netflix

'Hillbilly Elegy' Is Based on J.D. Vance's Real-Life Family


Dec. 3 2020, Published 5:20 p.m. ET

The highly anticipated Netflix original Hillbilly Elegy follows three generations of a working-class family living in the Rust Belt town of Middletown, Ohio. Starring Glenn Close, Amy Adams, and Gabriel Basso, the movie revolves around the life of J.D. Vance (Gabriel) and his childhood growing up in poverty with a mother battling drug addiction. 

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With Oscar nomination rumors for both Glenn Close as Mamaw and Amy Adams as mother Bev, Hillbilly Elegy is a hellish tale of J.D.’s road to success that pulls no punches. And with all the attention the movie is getting, audiences want to know whether Hillbilly Elegy is a true story and if the characters in the movie are real.

hillbilly elegy real characters
Source: Lacey Terrell/Netflix
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Is 'Hillbilly Elegy' based on a true story?

Yes, Netflix’s Hillbilly Elegy is based on J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, and many of the events depicted in the movie are taken directly from the book. 

The book, like the movie, tells the story of three generations of an Appalachian family living in Ohio, but is fundamentally J.D.’s coming-of-age story. Growing up in a Rust Belt town that has fallen on hard times, much of the film depicts J.D.’s and his neighbors’ struggles with poverty. 

In addition to the town’s economic hardship, J.D. also contends with his mother who develops a drug addiction, which leads him to go down a destructive path as a teenager. Luckily, J.D.’s grandmother steps in before he can irreparably damage his life, insisting that someone needs to pay attention "before it’s too late.” 

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With her strict guidance, J.D. works hard, joins the Marines, and eventually gets himself to Yale law school before going on to become a successful venture capitalist. 

But while he manages to escape his hometown, the book contends with the friction J.D. feels as he moves further and further away from the town and culture he grew up in. 

hillbilly elegy real characters
Source: Lacey Terrell/Netflix
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Along with the overarching storyline, many of the specific events depicted in the film are also taken directly from J.D.’s memoir. The scene in which Bev deliberately crashes her car into a telephone pole did happen. 

She also was fired from her nursing job after she stole a patient’s opioids and rollerbladed down the hall of the hospital where she worked. 

Real-life J.D. did also have an awkward dinner during which he had to phone his girlfriend and ask her which fork to use. He also saw his mother struggle with drug addiction and get arrested, which led him to start living with his Mamaw. 

Mamaw’s obsession with The Terminator is also based in reality and — fun fact — in the movie, Glenn Close wears J.D.'s Mamaw's actual glasses.

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Which of the characters in 'Hillbilly Elegy' are based on real people?

Practically all of the main characters in Hillbilly Elegy are based on real people. That includes Mamaw, J.D.’s mother Bev, his sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett), and even his girlfriend Usha (Freida Pinto).

But that’s not to say that the characters are still living the same lives as depicted in the movie. 

hillbilly elegy real characters
Source: Lacey Terrell/Netflix
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Since the publication of his memoir, J.D. has gone on to become a conservative political commentator, often appearing on the news to give insight into the thinking of poor, white, working-class Republicans. 

He also moved back to Ohio where he now runs a successful venture capital fund.

But the person who’s probably undergone the biggest change is J.D.’s mother, Bev. Now six years sober, Bev says that she hopes “people realize that if you want to change, you can change.” 

In an interview, J.D.’s cousin Bonnie Meibers said that growing up, “Mom would task me with watching the pill cabinet whenever Aunt Bev would come over.”

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But she continued, “In January, I proudly watched her accept her five-year sober coin, something I'm not sure she ever thought would happen.”

Stream Hillbilly Elegy on Netflix now.

If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol or drug abuse, call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357.

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