by George Wolf
If all politics is local, then Our Towns is the most political film you’ll see this year.
Because authors James and Deborah Fallows had one rule as they traveled the country looking for towns with interesting stories. Never, ever talk about the national political climate.
The Fallowses, both longtime writers, reporters and academics, have lived and traveled all over the world. Their 2018 bestseller Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey Into the Heart of America was based on their extensive reporting for The Atlantic on the civic and economic renewal of America’s towns.
Oscar-nominated directors Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan (Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern) put the gentle, reassuring authors front and center for an easygoing documentary from HBO that touts possibilities over partisanship.
From the influx of refugees in Sioux Falls, South Dakota to the twenty percent unemployment of Columbus, Mississippi; from the end of logging in Bend, Oregon to the climate change fears in Eastport, Maine, we see how these towns have adapted and thrived.
And, by the way, what we see is gorgeous, thanks to the drone footage from Bryan Harvey and the cinematography from him and Ascher.
The solutions – diversity, investment, innovation, local engagement – may not be revelations, but the surprise comes in seeing how some communities have actually been able to move these ideas from buzzwords to policy.
The film skirts specifics, as well as the deep ideological divisions that stand in the way of such progress, but even that seems true to the stated goal of locality. It never wavers, even in the face of celebrity. Because even though you clearly see actor Jeff Daniels playing guitar and singing with a band in Charleston, West Virginia, his national fame is completely ignored, as it should be.
It is not lost on The Fallowses that their book research coincided with a national recession and their film project debuts during a global pandemic. But even with such large-scale challenges, they say the building blocks for recovery are the same, and they start in our own neighborhoods.
For 97 minutes, Our Towns shows you that underneath all of our ugliness, there are success stories we can look to for examples of hope and possibility.
And now feels like a pretty good time to see them.