If Our Towns: A Panoramic Yet Intimate Look at Small Towns Throughout America were just a travelogue through America’s small and growing towns, it would be worthy. If it were an argument for rethinking what works to raise declining towns from the economic slough, it would be worth watching. If Our Towns were merely an exercise in beautiful film-making, it would be 97 minutes of loveliness.
Our Towns is all three. The documentary by veteran filmmakers Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan (Raising Renee) is based on the book by James and Deborah Fallows. The Fallowses served as executive producers and narrators; they are featured as tour guides and journalists in the film. Their words come from their travels and analyses, framed by their articulate excellence as wordsmiths. They wanted to see America the way they had seen and reported on China, so they appealed for towns with stories. Thousands responded to their post.
The film starts in James Fallows’ hometown in the Inland Empire of California, covering San Bernardino’s care for the homeless and Redlands’ circus schools. From there, they flew in their little plane to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where the Dakota nation continues. The town, headquarters for Wells Fargo and Citibank, houses the world’s largest collection of photos of the earth’s surface.
The Fallowses fly to Columbus, Miss., where the community college significantly educates citizens, then to Eastport, Maine, where lobstermen are sanguine about that industry’s going the way of sardine fishing, to Bend, Ore., where lumbermen realize that trees have given way to brews, and to Charleston, W. Va., where coal went down and opioid addictions rose. Charleston’s Gazette-Mail exposed the opioid dump, winning a Pulitzer.
In summary, Ascher and Jordan brilliantly pieced images of public art, Indian nations, classrooms, local newspapers — the elements that help communities rise from the ashes. Throughout, they showed breathtaking skyscapes and, after each town’s profile, they added rotogravures of the people who inhabit them.
The beauty of this film balances the brilliance of the Fallowses’ analyses and narration. The documentary “Our Towns” records stories of beloved, progressive, encouraging towns in these United States. It documents a way to the future.