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There is no doubt about the fact that Rural America is shrinking. The Fourth Industrial Revolution and the change it has brought to the world ‒ technology advances in every field of production, the decline of manufacturing, the inevitable automatization of agriculture, fishing, and forestry, and a decrease in the necessity of human intervention in those fields accelerated migration from rural to urban areas. Most of the nation’s smaller urban and rural counties are not growing and will not grow; as the population shifts to the cities, small towns get more and more deserted and some of them are on the verge of disappearing completely.
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And just like in real life, small-town America is also quietly vanishing in the movies, and that marks the fall of a great film community, as the best films set in small, rural areas create such a realistic atmosphere that the towns themselves practically become full-fledged characters. So, let’s take a look at seven films that capture America’s nostalgia for small-town vibes and tell the stories that could not be conceived anywhere outside the rural heart of the country.
7 Great Small Town America Movies:
‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape’
The movie is set in the fictional town of Endora, Iowa, and captures the spirit of living in a small Midwestern town perfectly. It marks one of the early career performances of two superstars: Johnny Depp, who plays the protagonist Gilbert Grape, a youngster trying to escape the unwanted small-town life, and Leonardo DiCaprio, whose heart-wrenching performance as Gilbert’s brain-damaged brother makes the movie a must-see. The exceptional chemistry between the two actors and the isolated and quaint background of Endora create a unique palette for the inescapable desperation of being a young man in the middle of nowhere and not being able to leave.
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The reason why I personally miss the 90s in cinema is partially because it was the golden age for movies like this Sean Penn and Jennifer Lopez starrer. Hollywood was incomparably more open to risk-taking, and that resulted with an array of oddball flawed gems like ‘U Turn’ ‒ with a superb cast (Billy Bob Thornton as the hellish car mechanic deserves a separate mention), surreal narrative, and lots of Dutch angles in the setting of that rural, unwelcoming small town in Arizona. Like most of its kindred movies, it is hard to put a finger on what in particular this Oliver Stone movie is about, or what is its message (if anything like that was implied at all), but is a helluva fun ride and a worthy adventure for anyone who is still after that hypnotic ‘Twin Peaks’ feeling, with a sauce of the good old violent Americana.
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An homage to the Italian Neorealist movement, this 2013 Oscar-nominated film accomplishes the hard task of showing the bleak reality of rural middle America through an unsentimental, yet very humane lens. ‘Nebraska’ is more structured like a road trip film but one that explores the other, grim side of the American Dream and the people growing up and getting old in it. Everyone in ‘Nebraska’ is either trying to escape the Midwestern small-town blues or has long accepted living in it and Bruce Dern gives a magnificent performance of the latter, masterfully depicting what growing old looks like in a place that quietly robs you of any dreams and aspirations in life.
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‘Manchester By The Sea’
There is no doubt that by filming this Oscar-winning drama, Kenneth Lonergan created one of the rawest films of the decade. The film depicts the pain of loss and family tragedy in the same straightforward, blunt way as its protagonist Lee Chandler tries to deal with his past, deliberately avoiding being stylish or glossy as it offers us an unapologetic view of trauma and grief communicated through the setting of that grey and cold coastal New England settlement that became world-famous soon after the film was released.
‘The Straight Story’
From the array of genres and styles that David Lynch is known to mix in his films, this is, without a doubt, the most straight and plain movie he has ever directed; this simplicity, however, only makes the film better. ‘The Straight Story’ is about an old man, whose health is deteriorating daily, taking a long road trip on a lawnmower to reconnect with his brother, who lives in another state. It is a journey story, but every participant will perceive that journey his own way. For Alvin, the 73-year-old protagonist, it’s the last journey to reflect on his long life and finally make things right with his brother.
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For Richard Fansworth, it marks his final role in his journey as an actor, and boy what a magnificent job he does, aged 79, delivering what’s forever cemented as one of the best performances on screen. For viewers, it’s an hour-and-something of a meditation on the real story of Alvin Straight’s odyssey through the sleepy towns and rural districts of the Midwest, with all its sinners and saints, seen one final time through the eyes of a man that has seen it all. ‘The Straight Story’ really stands out as a very heartwarming film and a worthy ride.
‘It’s A Wonderful Life’
For a heartwarming holiday favorite, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is full of very serious, pressing problems of the early Urbanization era. The first image seen in the film is a road sign saying ‘You are now in Bedford Falls’, and everything that comes after is viewed from that prism of living in a small town, which some of its residents are desperately trying to escape. George Bailey, a man with big dreams about seeing the world, continually forsakes his own desires to do what is right for the town, which is in danger of becoming Pottersville and being run by a corrupt megalomaniac. Besides being a universal Christmas movie, it’s amazing how the film’s basic premise of redemption and good winning over greed stays topical and resonates in 21st century America.
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It should be no surprise that the Coen Brothers’ 1996 masterpiece is the one that closes our list. No film has ever succeeded in making the everyday small-town routine so cinematic and ‘Fargo’ captures that from the first second ‒ it turns something as simple and mundane as a car towing a roll-up trailer down a snowy road into a frightening and ominous spectacle. From there on, every scene and character in the film is a tiny piece of the Northern Americana ‒ Margie’s telephone rings at 3 am and she puts on her police uniform to go out into the Minnesota winter.
Her husband wakes up with her to make her some eggs, we see them eating silently at a small table in the kitchen. She leaves, only to come back to tell her husband that her car needs a jumpstart. The whole mosaic of Fargo is assembled with recognizable pieces like that, embroidered on the blinding-white backdrop of ceaseless snow that is almost a separate character in the artistic segways between the scenes. The Scandinavian-Canadian-American accents and lines like ‘Ye darn tootin’ imprint the characters deeper in the viewer’s mind and everything about ‘Fargo’ seems just as authentic. Every character is genuine, believable, and at the same time with a shade of the bizarre, as no other movie has captured the simplicity of good and the banality of bad through its characters so well. Even by the Coen brothers’ high standards, ‘Fargo’ is a very special movie.
By David Tsintsadze
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David Tsintsadze is a music industry executive, investigative reporter and a film enthusiast. As far back as he remembers, he always wanted to be involved in the entertainment industry. When that started to happen and he began to really understand how it all worked, he found that his love of both the creative arts and the relevant industry allowed him to move between the two worlds and make them relate to each other. David’s belief in meaningful entertainment coincides with Hollywood Insider’s values and in his vision, cultural intermediaries play a crucial role in shaping and exchanging culture, which he firmly believes is one of the main contribution in creation of a free and vibrant society that people want to live in.