The documentary “Our Towns” serves as a companion piece to the 2018 book of the same title, through which the authors, James and Deborah Fallows, chronicled their travels throughout the nation in a single-engine airplane as they hung out in locations they felt the nationwide information media narrative had missed. One floor rule, James says within the movie, was to “never ask about national politics, because that conversation goes nowhere.”
The film, directed by Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan, confounds simple distinctions between city and rural settings and crimson and blue states. Even what counts as progress isn’t simple. (In this telling, Sioux Falls, S.D., owes a few of its revitalization to the state’s elimination of a ceiling on bank card rates of interest.) The movie trails the Fallowses as they return to a number of the cities from their ebook, gauging civic well being by means of libraries, native newspapers, rising artwork scenes and proliferating breweries.
There are regional variations. Students in Columbus, Miss., grapple with the legacy of slavery throughout them whereas adults look to a future there much less marred by racism. Members of the Flandreau Santee Sioux tribe focus on their efforts to maintain the Dakota language alive. A young person in Eastport, Maine, who works in the summertime as a lobsterman plans forward for a time when local weather change will transfer the lobster enterprise away.
Deborah says that of the pair, James (the previous Jimmy Carter speechwriter and longtime journalist for The Atlantic) is the historian, and she or he is attuned to what’s occurring within the second. They complement one another effectively. Still, as pleasant as their writing will be, the filmmaking round them — aerial photographs, time lapse pictures, cuts to the couple trying engrossed — is much less impressed than their mission.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes. Watch on HBO platforms.