Ode to Billy Joe (1976) - Plot Summary - IMDb
Ode to Billy Joe (1976) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • In 1950s Mississippi, teenager Bobbie Lee Hartley navigates her blossoming hormones as she is courted by Billy Joe McAllister, who is headed for tragedy.

  • At last, we're given the answers to the questions raised by the haunting 1967 Bobbie Gentry song of the same title. Eighteen- year-old Billy Joe McAllister is in love with Bobbie Lee, but her father refuses to allow her to receive gentlemen callers before she's sixteen. In the Mississippi Delta, in a time before the boondocks had seen television and indoor plumbing, a young man's fancy turns constantly to thoughts of love. Billy Joe is no different in this regard and his persistence is making it difficult for Bobbie Lee to maintain her virtue (the dog-earred issues of "Torrid Romance" don't help either). Perhaps an indictment of the artificial conventions of society, the film demonstrates the tragic consequences of a young couple's first awkward grapplings with love and sex. As Bobbie Lee says shortly after Billy Joe's lifeless body is dragged from the Tallahatchie River, "What do I know of love... I'm only a child." Yet, there seems little doubt that what she feels for the dead boy is love. Could he have loved her so well?


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • Set during the spring and summer of 1953 in rural Mississippi, Billy Joe McAllister (Robby Benson) flirts with Bobbie Lee Hartley (Glynnis O'Connor) as she crosses the Tallahatchie Bridge after the school bus lets her off as she walks on her way to her family's farm along a dirt road. Bobbie Lee reminds him that her father, Glenn (Sandy McPeak), still thinks of her as a child, even though she is 15-years-old and has been wearing a brassiere for two years. A friend since childhood, Billy Joe teases her about "Benjamin," the imaginary friend in whom Bobbie Lee has always confided, and offers himself as a replacement. Bobbie Lee says nothing but is delighted by Billy Joe's attention.

    That evening, Brother Taylor (Simpson Hemphill), the local Baptist preacher, has dinner with the Hartleys, and Bobbie Lee is asked by her parents to play a hymn on the piano. Later, Billy Joe is at a saloon with some co-workers from the local sawmill where exotic dancer Belinda Wiggs (Frannye Capelle) is giving a performance, but he becomes uncomfortable and leaves. Meanwhile, Bobbie Lee is in her bedroom reading aloud from 'Torrid Romance'.

    The next morning, Bobbie Lee and her mother, Anna (Joan Hotchkis), pack eggs for market while Glenn loads cans of milk onto his pickup truck. Anna empathizes with her daughter's sexual curiosity and, although she knows her advice is inadequate, reminds Bobbie Lee that "when the sap rises, a girl has to count to ten." While driving their wares to market, Glenn and Bobbie Lee are trapped on the bridge by a pickup truck containing three drunken hick boys from Alabama. Glenn's inability to pass or shift into reverse results in a shoving match between the two trucks, which leaves Glenn's vehicle balanced precariously on the edge of the bridge. Bobbie Lee runs to Dewey Barksdale's (James Best) sawmill to get help from James (Terence Goodman), her older brother, who works there. As she returns to the bridge with James and sawmill workers Tom Hargitay (Eddie Talr) and Billy Joe, they are hindered by the Alabama boys, who veer continuously across the narrow road. Glenn is rescued, but his truck is badly damaged, which infuriates James.

    On Sunday morning, outside the local church, congregants compliment Brother Taylor on his sermon denouncing premarital sex, while Billy Joe tells Bobbie Lee of his intention to call on her that evening. She warns him of her father's strictness, but Billy Joe is undaunted. Toward evening, Bobbie Lee complains to Glenn about the family's need for electricity and indoor plumbing, before introducing the subject of "gentleman callers." When he asks her age, she answers, "32B," referring to her bra size. Glenn promises to allow callers in two years, when she is "34". Bobbie Lee is exasperated and goes outside for a walk. While complaining aloud about the backward ways of her community, Bobbie Lee encounters Billy Joe. They walk to the side of a pond where they share their first kiss, before falling in.

    At the sawmill the next day, the teasing that Billy Joe endures from James and Tom reinforces his desire to move to another town. Meanwhile, a mother-daughter discussion of womanhood is interrupted when Glenn surprises his family with a new toilet for the house. The following afternoon, Billy Joe forces his way onto the school bus and makes public his intentions toward Bobbie Lee. She pretends to be embarrassed, but after they get off the bus, Bobbie Lee hints that her father may become more open-minded once the toilet is installed.

    That Saturday night, Barksdale's sawmill hosts a musical event called the Okolona River Bottom Jamboree. While people dance inside, a group of prostitutes create a makeshift brothel in an adjacent structure. After getting Billy Joe intoxicated on beer, Tom brings him to the brothel. In the parking lot, James discovers the truck belonging to the Alabama boys, and a brawl ensues, resulting in a broken jaw for one of the boys.

    On Tuesday morning, Trooper Ned (John Roper) and Trooper Bosh (Will Long) appear at the sawmill, along with Billy Joe's father, Dan McAllister (William Hallberg), who is looking for his missing son. Later that afternoon, Bobbie Lee finds Billy Joe by the pond. He has been hiding in the woods for the last three days, ashamed of a sin he committed at the Jamboree. When they both admit to loving each other, he asks her to meet him on the bridge at dusk to consummate their relationship.

    After dinner, Bobbie Lee finds the rag doll she named "Benjamin" and brings it with her to the bridge. When she arrives, Brother Taylor is fishing nearby, and Billy Joe, who is extremely tense, accidentally drops Benjamin into the river; this is witnessed by Brother Taylor. Once the preacher has left, they head to a wooded area, but Billy Joe is unable to perform. He bursts into tears and admits to having intercourse with a man, and must therefore be a homosexual. Bobbie Lee refuses to believe it and wants to resume their lovemaking, but he declines and sends her home. She tries to encourage him with the news that her father will allow gentleman callers. Billy Joe promises that he will do better next time.

    The next morning, the sheriff and his troopers pull Billy Joe's body from the river. At the funeral service, Brother Taylor professes that at least one among the congregation knows the reason for Billy Joe's suicide. Sometime later, while Bobbie Lee collects eggs in the chicken coup, James informs her that the McAllisters sold their house and have moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi. James falsely believes that his sister is pregnant by Billy Joe, as does almost everyone else in town, and is concerned that her reputation is ruined while Billy Joe becomes a folk hero. The neighbors have stopped speaking to Bobbie Lee's mother, and Glenn's deacon-ship with the church has been terminated after 20 years. James recommends that his sister seek an abortion, but Bobbie Lee says nothing in her own defense.

    One morning at dawn, Bobbie Lee leaves the farm with her suitcase and encounters Dewey Barksdale on the bridge. When she explains that she is leaving on the next bus, he tells her to stay and defend herself, aware that she is not pregnant. Barksdale admits that he was the man who seduced Billy Joe, and was on his way to tell her family. Bobbie Lee asks Dewey to keep his secret, believing that the truth would ruin both his life and the late Billy Joe's reputation. She is less concerned about herself, admitting that the scandal makes her feel like the heroine in a story from Torrid Romance. Barksdale requests the honor of driving Bobbie Lee to the depot.

    In a montage set one year later, James is married to his girlfriend Becky Thompson, Glenn has died from influenza, Anna is in mourning, and Bobbie Lee throws flowers off the Tallahatchie Bridge as a tribute to Billy Joe.

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