Friday, May 2, 2014

Real Rural America On Film

When I wrote my post a couple of weeks ago about the state of the "heartland," it inspired a conversation on Twitter about the movie Nebraska.  That got me thinking about how rural life is shown in the movies, and those films that get it right.  Nebraska is a film that really moved me, mostly because I had never seen the land of my birth rendered so vividly on celluloid.  It captured the good, bad, and downright cringe-worthy without resorting to the usual filmic stereotypes about rural America.  Most movies in a rural setting fall into one of two tropes: rural America as bucolic repository of all that is good in American life (Field of Dreams) or a backwards, violent hellhole full of bloodthirsty bigots (Deliverance).  There are precious few movies that can capture the reality that lies in between.  Here's my picks for the best sticks flicks:

The Last Picture Show

The book's great too, of course.  This film is Peter Bogdanovich's masterpiece, and one of the few coming of age stories that's completely bereft of sentimentality.  The end is perhaps the most accurate rendering I've seen of what it's like to feel trapped in a small town and unable to get out.


I was truly moved by this film, and not just because it made me homesick.  Alexander Payne skillfully captured the desolate beauty of the Plains, and also dug deep into that world's social mores.  I have been to family gatherings where men sat in the living room, silently drinking beer while watching football.  I have hung out in small town bars that double as the local agora, and have seen people sit their lawn chairs in the yard to watch the cars go by.  My rural Nebraska homeland is literally dying off, and Nebraska presents that painful truth well.

What's Eating Gilbert Grape?

I saw this one while still living in my hometown.  There are baroque elements, like the morbidly obese mother and mentally challenged younger brother, but Gilbert's feeling of being trapped and chained down by his small town ties is a kind of quiet desperation found quite often in places like that.

Smokey and the Bandit

I know it might not seem like this one fits, since it's not social realism, but the tall tale of a hot rod driver and shipment of illegal beer.  I have it on this list not only because it is a guilty pleasure of mine, but also because most of the chases are in backwoods places, and the film is full of backwoods characters who are heroic, but not in a simpering, moralistic way.  The stereotypical authoritarian Southern sheriff is the foil, but he's played for laughs.  It all adds up to a great time.

The Last American Hero

This forgotten gem of 1970s realism was adapted from a story by Tom Wolfe.  It's about Junior Johnson, a moonshiner's son who takes his skills at outrunning the revenuers while transporting illegal hooch into the world of stock car racing.  Jeff Bridges turns in a helluva performance with a character who faces a common rural dilemma: how to get to a better life without leaving behind who you are.

Breaking Away

Yet again, another film from the 1970s with a realistic view of rural life.  The main character is obsessed with cycling and has become alien to his father in his quest to "break away" from his background.  There is perhaps no better American film about social class dynamics in rural America, or the difficulty of striving for something beyond the rural confines without walling off one's family.

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