This week, the film adaptation of J.D. Vance’s controversial memoir, Hillbilly Elegy hits Netflix. For the most part, reviewers’ reactions range from scathingly critical to merely disappointed.

But even as critics argue that Vance’s memoir mischaracterizes Appalachia, the fate of the film adaptation need not be representative of rural entertainment in general. As Daily Yonder publisher Dee Davis points out, there are plenty of good rural movies and TV shows out there. “When you consider the wild west, the high seas, and outer space are pretty rural settings to start with, then it is easy to find something rural to watch to give you joy or break your heart.”

So, our team at the Daily Yonder and its parent organization, the nonprofit Center for Rural Strategies, decided to compile a list of some of our favorites. Whether you’re looking for something to watch with your family over the holidays, or just want to break up the monotony of working from home, we expect these rural recommendations will serve you well.

The Peanut Butter Falcon

YouTube video

I remember 2019 as a banner year for movie-going; By my count, I saw nearly 30 movies in a theater, most of them pretty darn good (as for 2020, what a difference a year makes…). Amid the biggest blockbusters and the awards-season darlings, The Peanut Butter Falcon was the little movie that could, standing its own as one of my favorites of the year. The movie’s story winds a path through southern backcountry and comes to life through encounters with all manner of rural folks.

In the hands of most films, the portrayals of these characters would likely be one one-note at best, scornful at worst. Instead, The Peanut Butter Falcon stands out for treating each of its characters and settings with tenderness and nuance. Whatever their role in the story, big or small, protagonist or antagonist, the characters bring a fully realized humanity that you will both understand and be surprised by. If you missed this one last year, its charming, hopeful energy will be a great addition to your 2020 movie calendar. –Adam B. Giorgi

The Peanut Butter Falcon is available to watch on Hulu and Amazon Prime Video.

Coal Miner’s Daughter

YouTube video

The year was 1979, and I was a junior in high school. My little community in the mountains of eastern Kentucky was abuzz with excitement because the cast and crew of Coal Miner’s Daughter were here to film scenes for a movie about the iconic Loretta Lynn’s life. Several scenes were shot in Blackey, about four miles from my home at Carcassonne. The script called for lots of extras to be on set during the scenes where Sissy Spacek, who played the role of Loretta Lynn, was performing at a local honky-tonk. People from all over the community were eager to help out, including my grandparents, my dad, and his wife. There were dozens of other friends and neighbors that joined them.

Years later, I was in New Mexico for work and feeling homesick. I turned the television on in my hotel room, and there on the screen were my grandparents, dancing in the bar while Loretta (Sissy) sang. It made me feel closer to home and to my people. I return to the movie every now then to recapture that feeling of home and belonging, much the same way Loretta Lynn returned to her mountain home through her music. –Teresa Collins

Coal Miner’s Daughter is available to rent through Amazon Video, iTunes, Google Play, or YouTube, and can also be watched free on Peacock.

Reel Rock 14–United States of Joes

Reel Rock is an annual event that showcases the best of rock climbing movies, celebrating human spirit and mind boggling athletic skills. Last year’s selection included what will probably remain my favorite of all climbing movies for a long time. United States of Joe‘s – part of Reel Rock 14 – is a short documentary about a clash of civilizations. Unruly climbers discover a unique climbing features in and around a small, conservative Mormon town in Utah. But what starts as a story of opposing world-views and lifestyles ends as a tale of community building, much love and fun.

Even if rock climbing is the last thing on your list, I encourage you to stream Reel Rock 14 and discover these incredible parts of the world and people who explore them – I guarantee you’ll be surprised by what you learn! Jan Pytalski

United States of Joe’s is available to watch on Red Bull TV, or can purchased, along with the rest of Reel Rock 14, through Amazon Video or the Reel Rock website.

Parks and Recreation

YouTube video

Pawnee, Indiana is a great example of a micropolitan drama that appeals to all of us who’ve interfaced with a small city government in any way. Maybe you’ve experienced a giant hole in an adjacent lot that is a potential public health hazard or maybe you’ve attended a citizen’s forum about a new park project in the high school gymnasium that turned into a riot about parking on Main Street. How about the crazy rivalry with the wealthier small town next door, and what about the annual festivals that get weirder and more precious every year? Parks & Recreation is both critic and apologist, portraying city manager-city council form of government in a way that moves us from cynicism to belief in the power of local government to make positive change. 

Back in October, you could watch the entire series on the three big streaming platforms, Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. I think you have to download Peacock, the new NBC streaming platform to watch it now. Maybe we should all just own it. Several years ago, I bit the bullet and bought the entire Northern Exposure series because the characters and plot points are universally good for the soul. Leslie, Tom, Ron, Chris, April, Ann, Larry/Gary/Jerry, and Donna from the Pawnee, Indiana Parks Department are likewise some of the finest citizens I’ve ever met. Whitney Kimball Coe

Parks and Recreation is available to watch on Peacock.

Captain Fantastic

YouTube video

Completely isolated from the outside world, Ben (Viggo Mortensen), his wife Leslie, and their six children live a unique and delightful life in the forests of Washington (think survivalists but with a focus on classic literature, foreign languages, and the annual celebration of Noam Chomsky day instead of Christmas). But after Leslie dies, the family is forced to face the rest of the world, and reevaluate their relationship to it. They embark on a quest to make sure her last wishes are honored, learning about the outside world and their own family on the way. Anya Slepyan

Captain Fantastic can be watched on Hulu or Kanopy, and is available to rent on Amazon Video, iTunes, Google Play, and YouTube.

A River Runs Through It

YouTube video

If the challenging times of 2020 have you yearning for the peace of tall mountains, running rivers, and open fields then look no further than A River Runs Through It, the 1992 Academy Award-winning Robert Redford film based on Norman Maclean’s classic memoir.

While the film is largely touted for its scenery along the Blackfoot Valley of Northwest Montana, the real beauty comes in the human spirit that runs throughout the story of the coming of age of two brothers in the early 19th Century Rocky Mountain West and the trials, tribulations, and lessons that come with it. Mary Sketch

A River Runs Through It is available to stream on Hulu, Starz, or Sling TV, and can also be rented through Amazon Video, iTunes, Google Play, or YouTube.

The Biggest Little Farm

YouTube video

Farming is fun, incredibly hard, at times beautiful, and at times full of death. The Biggest Little Farm documentary follows a family and their dog on a dream journey to create a truly sustainable farm. The gauzy, luminescent cinematography sucks you in to the beauty of farming, and then somehow highlights even more effectively how crushing farming’s realities can feel. Pests, predators, weather, fire. Anyone who has farmed can identify, anyone who hasn’t will still become emotionally involved.

This film has a great, uplifting, spirit. It highlights the beauty and cruelty of nature and farming. But it also leaves you hopeful and eager to seek out, even in small, personal ways, how we might work together to create a healthier planet and food system. Chris Poore

The Biggest Little Farm is available to stream on Hulu.

Stand by Me

YouTube video

My favorite dramatic film in the coming-of-age genre is Rob Reiner’s film from the Stephen King novel, Stand by Me. It starts with Ben E. King’s terrific song, one that will raise goose bumps on you big enough for a calf to suck, but is mostly unrelated to the film. The plot centers on four boys on a hike to find the dead body of a missing boy. The characters really resonate with me who was a kid of that age at that time who spent a lot of time walking down railroad tracks. Marty Newell

You can stream Stand by Me on Hulu, Starz, or Sling TV, and can also rent it through Amazon Video and iTunes.

The Castle

YouTube video

The Castle is an Australian working class comedy set in the distant suburbs outside of an
expanding Melbourne airport. It is a romp, one family’s stand against eminent domain.
They fight it in the neighborhood, in the courts, and from their remote country get-a-way.
A man’s home is his castle. Dee Davis

You can rent or buy The Castle on Amazon Video and Vudu.

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean

YouTube video

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, directed by John Huston and starring Paul
Newman, is the quintessential cowboy movie. The ensemble cast features Ava
Gardener, Tab Hunter, Ned Beatty, Jaqueline Bisset, and Stacy Keach as the original
albino outlaw Bad Bob. It spans a small town’s lifetime with banditry, public hangings,
perpetual poker, a brothel, and a drunk bear as its main features. Dee Davis

You can rent The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean on Amazon Video, YouTube, Vudu, and Google Play.

You Can Count on Me

YouTube video

You Can Count on Me is a small-town drama set in New York State. It stars Laura Linney, Mark Ruffalo, and Mathew Broderick. It is not flashy. It is just a look at how local people deal with aspiration and setbacks, how families endure together, and how town life gives a framework for what we have to deal with. – Dee Davis

You Can Count on Me is available to watch on Kanopy, and it can also be rented on YouTube, Amazon Video, Vudu, Google Play, or iTunes.

Related STory: Don’t Miss More Rural Recommendations

What rural movies (and shows) did we miss?

We know this list only scratches the surface of great rural stories from popular entertainment. What are your favorite rural movies or shows? Let us know using the form below and we may share some of the best audience suggestions in a future article.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.