In recent days, President Biden has relied upon a common term when addressing certain news items of the moment. Responding to violence directed against Asian-Americans and a restrictive new Georgia voting law, among other things, Biden has been vehement in decrying them as “un-American.”

Yet, many commenters have been quick to note that Anti-Asian activity and voter suppression are in fact deeply American phenomena, an unavoidable part of our history. From the monuments in our parks to the curriculum taught in our schools, it’s evident that the effort to define what America is (and is not) has become as contested as ever. An aptly titled documentary released on HBO this week contends, if you want to see what America is, just look at its smaller towns and cities.

Or look at “Our Towns,” to be precise. The stake being put down here is not new. In fact, the documentary is based upon a large body of work by Deb and James Fallows, the executive producers of the film and the people giving voice to its story. I expect most Daily Yonder readers will be familiar with — and receptive to — many of the concepts and themes Mr. and Mrs. Fallows favor. When it comes to theories of localism, small-town living, pride of place, and community action, the “Our Towns” project could fast become an urtext of the field.

YouTube video
The trailer for HBO’s “Our Towns” documentary (via YouTube).

But even if you are not familiar with the book of the same name that inspired this movie — “Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey Into the Heart of America” — or the accompanying columns in The Atlantic, you’ll likely find HBO’s documentary to be a cohesive and compelling experience in its own right. In many respects, this story was built for the screen. The Fallows duo first started the “Our Towns” endeavor by flying their small personal airplane around the country, to places where the airlines and airport codes don’t go. The film readily taps into those roots, offering a bounty of aerial photography capturing Deb and James taking flight. It flexes its visual muscles — and its HBO-backed budget — most in moments when street-level footage, airborne drone photography, and satellite imagery all blend together almost seamlessly.

This dynamic visual approach does a good job simulating the journey, taking viewers along for the ride. It also cuts straight to a ready question or critique that might lie in wait: Can a small sampling of towns really represent the whole of the American experience? These may well be outliers or positive deviants, anecdotes by any other name; how can they lay claim to America?

In both its visual approach and its themes, the movie smartly draws connections between the disparate places featured. It expertly zooms in and out, traces narrative through lines, and demonstrates how far-reaching economic and geo-political forces have shaped lives, and livelihoods, even in our smallest, most remote places. One striking sequence underscores the point, flashing a quick succession of images showing nearly identical stretches of freeway, strip malls, fast-food restaurants, and suburban developments. The places the film visits are unique in some ways yet eerily similar in others, and while they may not capture the whole American story, they do a pretty good job distilling it.

Overall, “Our Towns” is quite efficient, making the most of its 90-minute runtime; it’s impressive how many important issues the film fits into the narrative, hitting upon homelessness, opioid addiction, immigration, global trade, the legacy of slavery, climate change, and even the decline of local news. But for all its sweep, when you get past the big-picture, high-minded concerns on the filmmakers’ minds, the heart of this story is found in the details, when its feet are on the ground.

Photo of Deb and Jim Fallows in Our Towns documentary
From left, Deb and James Fallows, as seen in “Our Towns” (Photo courtesy of HBO).

It’s the close-up look at each community, and the people who live there, that animates “Our Towns” and makes it stick. The message here is ultimately one of optimism, resilience, and reinvention, and it resounds because of the individuals seen putting those principles into practice. The filmmaking team doesn’t paper over or push aside very real and formidable challenges, but they focus their lens first and foremost on those who are working to adapt and overcome them.

All the footage from these travels was captured in 2018, before the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic and resurgent cries for racial justice. However, the timing is in a way opportune. Each Fallows mentions the shockwaves of 2020 in the film’s opening and closing scenes, attempting to draw lessons from the past that can help us in facing our present moment.

But beyond that, I simply found the film to be a balm for chronic Covid-era cabin fever. I longed to visit any of these towns, or many more like them, charmed by the downtown streets, small businesses, public art and more. I longed to be back in the community again like these folks were.

Recent times in America have raised our hackles. As we’ve hunkered down, it’s all too easy to look at distant spots on the map with contempt, to associate those from certain political geographies, a West Virginia or South Dakota for example, with ideologies we can’t recognize or abide by. “Our Towns” alone won’t fix that, nor will it entirely put to bed the question of what’s American and what’s “un-American.” But it might help you feel a new sense of curiosity or connection regarding distant places on the map, to see the folks who live there not as part of the problem, but as fellow members of a nationwide community, proud of where they come from and ever in pursuit of solutions.

Our Towns is now streaming on HBO Max. It is also playing on cable television and on demand via HBO. See listings.

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