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HBO’s ‘Our Towns’ Documentary Only Sees Small Town America Through Rose-Colored Glasses

The feature-length doc avoids small-town stereotypes often purported on TV, but dodges critical issues tied to the sustainability of these little communities.

The video above was produced by IndieWire’s Creative Producer Leonardo Adrian Garcia. The review below relates to HBO’s documentary film “Our Towns,” a portrait of America’s small cities and towns that chronicles the rise of civic and economic reinvention across six chosen communities. Based on the book “Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America” by James and Deborah Fallows, the documentary is available now from HBO.

Ben Travers, TV Critic: Libby, small towns hold a dear place in my heart, as I know they do yours. We’re both from towns off the beaten path (though I’m technically from a village, as my tiny rural home has less than 1000 citizens). We’ve both since moved to “the big city” (Los Angeles, though plenty of other densely populated locales fit the phrase). And we both are vexed whenever anyone makes a statement about small town life without first stating where they’re from and, if their town proves unfamiliar (as it should), providing the population.

Enter “Our Towns.” HBO’s documentary chronicles six small cities and towns across America, taking particular interest in how each fosters a thriving community amid challenging times. Whether it’s through innovation, initiative, collaboration, or a little bit of all three, travel journalists James and Deborah Fallows, along with filmmakers Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan (a University of Iowa alumnus, like yours truly), fly their little four-person plane into town and go looking for what keeps each place on the map.

I’ll admit, as soon as James Fallows said he came from San Bernadino, CA, the first chosen city, my hackles were up. Not only is its population in the triple digits, but the city’s proximity to Los Angeles made it fairly well-known compared to the 1,000-plus submissions originally received for this project. (It began as a blogpost for The Atlantic.) How is San Bernadino an underrepresented town? How is a town known by every actor in Hollywood comparable to “flyover country,” as Fallows relates via voiceover? How is it “small”?

I’m still not sure “Our Towns” justifies San Bernadino’s inclusion, but as the 97-minute feature moved on, I found it at least makes a convincing case to respect and acknowledge places that are so often ignored by major media — and so often misrepresented on TV — without conflating all small towns into the idyllic or uninformed stereotypes so often seen. But I’m getting ahead of things: What about the documentary really stood out to you?

Libby Hill, TV Awards Editor: Ben, I’ll be honest with you. Once the documentary opened with San Bernardino/Riverside/Redlands, CA — otherwise known as the 13th largest metropolitan area in the United States — it lost me. I understand what Fallows is attempting to say with his argument lumping together places typically overlooked by the mainstream media, but it honestly seems like false equivalence. When he says he goes to South Dakota and understands how locals feel overlooked or misunderstood by the rest of the country, I can say, quite confidently, that he does not.

And I say that with all the confidence of someone who has lived in both Riverside and (within 30 miles of) Sioux Falls, SD.

This is, perhaps, the crux of what didn’t work for me about “Our Towns.” There’s no real unifying thesis beyond, “Here are some places we don’t really talk about that have largely the same problems as everywhere else in the country.” Actually, that’s not even the thesis because when the documentary attempts to address issues of vast import, like institutional racism, it’s wildly inconsistent with how much it wants to engage.

For instance, the film was very interested in exploring positive immigrant experiences as it related to workers who had recently relocated to Sioux Falls for work and then stay to build a better life for their families; specifically, how a South Dakota banking boom had spurred many job opportunities for people just starting out. But those beaucoup banking bucks come at a price. The reason that Wells Fargo and Citibank moved their operations to the state in the early 1980s is because South Dakota rewrote its usury laws, doing away with caps on interest rates and fees, making the Rushmore State a safe haven for banks who wanted to slap 26 percent interest rates on credit cards often aimed at individuals the least likely to have the means to manage such a boggling rate.

And the banking industry isn’t the only place in the state depending heavily on immigrant laborers. Viewers might have heard of the Smithfield meat packing plant before seeing it in the doc, when it became a COVID-19 hotspot last April, ultimately leading to the factory being closed for nearly a month. When all was said and done, 1,300 workers contracted the virus, with four dying from it.

But “Our Towns” had a lot less interest in exploring the former immigrant experience as opposed to the latter and I’m wondering how much that has to do with the filmmakers stated goal of avoiding national politics when it came to making the film. Ben, am I way off base or is attempting to ignore the underlying politics of a place smack of privilege?

HBO Our Towns documentary South Dakota

A mother and child in South Dakota, from HBO’s “Our Towns” documentary

Courtesy of HBO

Ben: I don’t think you’re off-base at all. When reviewing any project that feels misguided, whether it’s in a specific plot point or the general conception, I often get caught in the trap of reviewing what I wanted the project to be rather than what the project actually is — and there’s certainly a risk of that happening to me here, with a topic I feel strongly about. But the filmmakers mention that they didn’t want to ask locals about national politics, even though those topics are already framing many issues facing these towns, whether the doc wants to acknowledge them or not.

In a Q&A screened at the (virtual) premiere, the “Our Towns” team went a bit further in outlining their thesis. James Fallows said their underlying goal was really “trying to convey how much there is there,” or simply reminding people that America exists beyond its urban skylines. That’s a fine intention and speaks to how the film avoids gross generalizations of “small towns” (a la the hickish “Schitt’s Creek” or overly idyllic “Gilmore Girls”). But Steven Ascher said something more to your concerns and ultimately more to what’s missing in this fetching but forgettable documentary.

“We did not set out to make a positive film. Our goal was to capture real darkness and real efforts to counteract that darkness,” he said. “We thought it was really important to show you what’s wrong and show you how people were working on these things.”

In that goal, I think they largely failed. I remember Fallows’ narration bringing up that South Dakota banking boom and thinking, “Here we go — this is where it gets darker.” But they brush right by it. “By moving their headquarters to South Dakota, banks could charge customers much higher interest rates, which meant big profits from people who couldn’t pay off their credit cards every month,” Fallows says in the doc. But it’s clear from the immediate pivot to a new topic that we’re only meant to focus on how jobs were created. The big profits matter more than the people struggling to pay off unreasonable debts — debts that would be illegal if accrued in other states, at other times — and that’s just one instance in which “Our Towns” picks and chooses which issues to address in order to paint an appealing portrait of American ingenuity.

To me, the way the doc approaches Columbus, MS mirrors the way it approaches difficult issues overall. In speaking with representatives at a local development agency, the Fallowses acknowledge that Confederate pride still seen in parts of the city can be a detriment to new business. “If you may offend somebody who wants to invest here or wants to create jobs here, why would you do that?” one of the agents says. There’s an implied agreement that monuments to racism, be it the Confederate flags shown in cemeteries or the statues standing in parks, should be ousted for the betterment of the community, but there’s also a hesitancy to actually say that; to take a stand on anything specific, so much as lean on the old adage, “Whatever’s good for business!”

As we’ve all learned the hard way, running America like a business is a bad idea, and limiting your analysis of its small towns to business decisions feels equally misguided — ah, there’s that word again, which means my inner voice is telling me to shut up and pass the mic.

HBO Our Towns documentary Deborah Fallows James Fallows

Deborah and James Fallows in “Our Towns”

Matt Cadwallader / HBO

Libby: That quote you mentioned from the Q&A honestly bowls me over, Ben, as it seems to be such a succinct meditation on the shortcomings of “Our Towns” without ever realizing it.

The filmmakers set out to make a film that explored America for all its sins and flaws and, in the process, celebrate those individuals working hard to make their communities a better place. But within the context of the film, the country’s failures are largely sidelined or used merely to set-up something uplifting.

As a whole, “Our Towns” lacks stakes. If you minimize the conflicts and complications existing in America, the things that can drive you to the depths of despair and threaten millions of citizens on a day-to-day basis — like extreme poverty, racism, lack of health and family services — then there’s nothing to be uplifted from. If all a documentary is showing me is positive people making changes in the world around them, that’s fine, but it’s not inspiring me to go out and do the difficult work of bettering my own community.

Let’s go back to South Dakota. You did a great job outlining this same slight-of-hand trick with regard to the business, so let me try and expound on this tendency with regard to cultural conflicts.

It’s wonderful that the documentary included footage of a pow wow from Flandreau — which is 45 miles away from Sioux Falls, if you’re keeping track — and it was moving to hear about the plans being made to keep the Dakota language alive in a new generation. The entire scenario seems challenging.

But that’s not the half of it. South Dakota is home to five of the 50 poorest counties in the country, most of them containing reservations. In the last week, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down significant parts of the law that gives Native American families preference in the adoption of Native American children.

My point (and I swear I have one) is that footage of that pow wow is even more powerful when you’re reminded of the ongoing plight of the people involved.

And this is true across the board. As you mentioned with Columbus, I wanted to hear more from people who had to exist in this town as it incrementally distances itself from its plantation houses and confederate flags. I wanted to hear more about the yuppification of Bend, OR and from that guy in Eastport, ME whose 15-year plan took the continued destruction of the planet’s ecosystems into consideration.

Say what you will about America, but I think everyone can agree that this country is a messy bitch who lives for drama. Don’t give me a documentary that tries to crop out that mess to make for a prettier picture.

Which is a really long-winded way of getting to my real question for you: Jeff Daniels!?

Ben: Ah, Jeff Daniels. As if anyone else could properly embody the humble origins of Midwestern small towns, seeing the Emmy-winning lead of “The Newsroom” and unjustly Oscar-snubbed “Dumb & Dumber” star pop up early in “Our Towns” — jamming away in his traveling blues band — I wondered if I’d misread the documentary’s synopsis: Were we going to take a trip to Chelsea, Michigan (pop. 4,944) and hear a bit about starting a not-for-profit theater that provides resources to Midwestern actors, playwrights, and artists? Was the man who proudly donned Carhartt for this year’s Golden Globes ceremony about to explain what, exactly, about small-town life in Michigan proved more alluring than the bright lights of Hollywood?
Alas, it was not to be. Daniels was just in West Virginia for a gig and only in the doc for added color, though given the other on-camera subjects in “Our Towns,” I must say I was surprised that the filmmakers didn’t include his commentary anyway. As you mentioned, Libby, so many of the talking heads were rather prominent figures in their communities, many of whom had something to gain from painting their town in the best possible light. We heard from mayors, business developers, business owners, and a man in Maine who serves as the executive director of the port authority, a reserve police officer, and the chairman of the county commissioners, all while “flipping real estate on the side.” His point was fair: You have to love living there to live there, but these aren’t the only people in town. For a full profile, we need to hear the cons, the dirt, the darker parts, and very few subjects were willing to speak to that.

This brings me back to my ultimate quandary with “Our Towns.” What it is — a documentary highlighting underrepresented American cities and towns, mainly through the programs that have kept them afloat — is fine. But it had the potential, and maybe even the responsibility to do more. Just considering the gaps and questions we’ve mentioned, there’s clearly another side to the shiny coin presented by “Our Towns.” Maybe this should’ve been a docuseries, highlighting one town per episode. Maybe the feature simply needed a stronger thesis. Maybe it’s exactly what the filmmakers wanted, and we’re making a mountain out of a molehill.

But I’ve come to expect much more than “nice” and “pretty” from HBO documentaries, just as I demand more than pleasantries from anyone who wants to make a statement about my beloved small towns.

For even more about how “Our Towns” depicts small town (and big city) life, check out this week’s episode of IndieWire’s TV podcast “Millions of Screens” as hosts Deputy TV Editor Ben Travers, Creative Producer Leo Garcia, and TV Awards Editor Libby Hill try to decide once and for all who is true voice of small town America. (Hint: It’s not Leo.)

Plus, the gang parses out the logistics behind HBO’s latest fictional original series “The Nevers” and breaks down the results of last week’s Director’s Guild of America Awards. In keeping with ongoing social distancing mandates, this week’s episode was again recorded from the comfort of everyone’s respective apartments, and we’re again offering viewers a video version of the podcast, as embedded above.

Millions of Screens” is available on AnchorApple PodcastsBreakerGoogle PodcastsSpotify, and Stitcher. You can subscribe here or via RSS. Share your feedback with the crew on Twitter or sound off in the comments. Review the show on iTunes and be sure to let us know if you’d like to hear the gang address specific issues in upcoming editions of “Millions of Screens.” Check out the rest of IndieWire’s podcasts on iTunes right here.

“Our Towns” premiered Tuesday, April 13 on HBO. The documentary is available to stream via HBO Max.

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