Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, a newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, retrospectives, recommendations, and more. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.
When I was a kid in small-town northern Minnesota, I was fascinated by televised award shows. Inspired by what I saw on screen, I would hold my own copy-cat ceremonies starring all of my favorite stuffed animals. There is a cynical school of thought that would argue show business award ceremonies — this past week’s Motion Picture Academy Awards, the Oscars, being the most recent example — are about as meaningful as my old contests to determine if Kermit the Frog, Bugs Bunny, or Winnie the Pooh would be selected as the top toy of the year.
At their worst, these shows can be seen as moralizing, self-congratulating, and out of touch with the kinds of media most average people are actually enjoying. But as evidenced by the experience many had seeing Asian-American artists take home this year’s top Oscars, these events do hold meaning. For the storytellers whose work makes it to the stage, the recognition and representation matter. Thus, as this year’s Hollywood “award season” concludes, it is also worthwhile to ask, how have rural stories, and storytellers, been represented and recognized in these venues?
Recent years have offered a robust slate of award-nominated and winning stories grounded in the experiences of rural America. Prior to this year’s ceremony, the last two “Best Picture” winners, “CODA” and “Nomadland,” both told stories with rural or small-town backdrops. And they competed alongside other significant rural contenders like “Power of the Dog” and “Minari” — which, in addition to being nominated for Best Picture, also won Best Director and Best Supporting Actress awards, respectively.
This time around the cupboard was comparatively bare. The big winner, “Everything Everywhere All At Once” tells a story that spans a vast multiverse, but the movie’s heart and soul resides with one Asian-American family in their Los Angeles-based laundromat. Meanwhile, among its ten fellow nominees for Best Picture, only a few relied on rural settings and rural themes, with most of those being international (or intergalactic).
“The Banshees of Inisherin,” which we wrote about upon its release a few months ago, was the closest such contender. Its story of a dissolving friendship on a rural island off the coast of Ireland was compelling, but despite receiving nine Oscar nominations — and comparable awards at the Golden Globes and BAFTAs — it notched no wins.
The drama “Women Talking,” another Best Picture nominee, won a well-deserved award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Set almost entirely within a barn house and focused on a small group of Mennonite women, the film tells an intimate and inspiring tale of democracy in action at its smallest scale. Comparable in plot structure to something like “12 Angry (Wo)Men,” one could understandably interpret the film to be set in some corner of rural America, but the roots of the story in fact trace more directly back to rural Canada and Bolivia. Miriam Toews, who wrote the book upon which the movie is based, took inspiration from her own youth in Canadian Mennonite circles and a series of true events that took place in a Bolivian Mennonite colony.
Then of course there is “Avatar: The Way of Water,” perhaps the most lucrative blockbuster film among the award nominees (alongside the crowd-pleasing “Top Gun: Maverick”). There is some level of rural relevance to the world of Avatar, with its Na’vi protagonists clearly taking inspiration from real-world Indigenous cultures. Yet, the merits of director James Cameron’s approach to that act of sci-fi adaptation — some would call it cultural appropriation or extraction — remains up for debate. For now, there’s little surprise that this very effects-driven sequel had to content itself with a single award in the category of Visual Effects.
Closer to home, you could be forgiven for overlooking the rural setting of “The Whale,” a film that generated plenty of award season chatter. Lost among the discourse about the film’s mean-spirited, fat phobic tendencies and its role as a comeback vehicle for actor Brendan Fraser, was much of any discussion about the film’s setting: the small college town of Moscow, Idaho. An article from Vox provides some thoughtful reflections on this element of the story and brings a bit of nuance analyzing a film that was often chided for lacking that very thing:
The Whale is set in a very specific place: Moscow, Idaho, a city whose significance might not hit everyone the same way. Set along the state’s northern border with Washington, it’s a home both to a sizable population of Mormons and to a burgeoning movement of Christian Reconstructionists, an evangelical movement that embraces the idea, in essence, that biblical law ought to be the law of modern America. … Following the movie’s Toronto Film Festival premiere, [screenwriter Samuel D.] Hunter spoke about how, growing up as a gay kid in Moscow, Idaho, he turned to food to self-medicate the loathing he learned to feel for himself, and experienced some of what [protagonist] Charlie experiences.
Not Short Changed
Beyond the marquee titles that dominate award season, there are many underappreciated gems to be found in the lower billed categories, for those who embrace the exercise.
This year’s entrants for Best Animated Feature included three films that offer lovingly crafted and visually impressive renditions of rural environments, from the Italian countryside of Guillermo Del Toro’s “Pinocchio” to the fairytale far far away of “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” and the open seas of “The Sea Beast.” The animated shorts followed suit, with the winner, “The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse,” offering something resembling the soft, gentle profundity of A.A. Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood; my personal favorite, “Ice Merchants,” meanwhile, spins an imaginative, colorful tale about life at the frontiers of climate adaptation.
That same theme was present in the Best Documentary Short category, with winner “The Elephant Whisperers” showcasing the work of a sanctuary for threatened elephants in rural India. For my part, fellow nominee “Haulout” offered the stronger version of a very similar tale, following a marine biologist working in the Arctic. It trades the active narration and heavy-handed musical accompaniment of “The Elephant Whisperers” for a minimalistic approach that lets the wonders and horrors of nature speak for themself. It left me floored, questioning if I could believe my eyes, with moments of comic absurdity, sheer horror, and great tragedy all existing elegantly in the span of its short, sub-half-hour runtime. Documentary short “Stranger at the Gate” is also worth a look, recounting an unlikely and timely story of cultural bridge-building that occurred in the small city of Muncie, Indiana in the years following the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
You can dig even deeper from there, with the short film “An Irish Goodbye,” a dark comedy about a family farm in Northern Island. It won the award for Live Action (Non-Documentary) Short but is not yet easily available to watch online. High on my list of films to still seek out is “EO,” a Best International Feature nominee from Poland that follows a plucky donkey on an unlikely journey. It made a number of “Best of the Year” lists at the end of 2022 and more recently became available to watch online.
What to make of this diverse, rurally-curated bunch is unclear, the presence of some throughline or takeaway being up to the beholder. However, if nothing else, it offers us yet another reminder that we have no shortage of powerful rural stories and rural storytellers, so many of them no doubt worthy of admiration and acclaim. Whether or not you enjoy the pageantry of the award shows that have just completed their latest cycle, you’d be well served to make some time to enjoy this selection of works they exist to celebrate.
Most of the films above are now available to watch at home. Click on their titles throughout this article to find out how to watch, on streaming platforms, on YouTube, or via purchase and rental on demand.
This article first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, recommendations, retrospectives, and more. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered straight to your inbox.