The documentary “Our Towns” serves as a companion piece to the 2018 book of the same title, in which the authors, James and Deborah Fallows, chronicled their travels across the country in a single-engine airplane as they spent time in places they felt the national news media narrative had missed. One ground rule, James says in the film, was to “never ask about national politics, because that conversation goes nowhere.”
The movie, directed by Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan, confounds easy distinctions between urban and rural settings and red and blue states. Even what counts as progress isn’t straightforward. (In this telling, Sioux Falls, S.D., owes some of its revitalization to the state’s elimination of a ceiling on credit card interest rates.) The film trails the Fallowses as they return to some of the cities from their book, gauging civic health through libraries, local newspapers, growing art scenes and proliferating breweries.
There are regional variations. Students in Columbus, Miss., grapple with the legacy of slavery all around them while adults look to a future there less marred by racism. Members of the Flandreau Santee Sioux tribe discuss their efforts to keep the Dakota language alive. A teenager in Eastport, Maine, who works in the summer as a lobsterman plans ahead for a time when climate change will move the lobster business away.
Deborah says that of the pair, James (the former Jimmy Carter speechwriter and longtime journalist for The Atlantic) is the historian, and she is attuned to what’s happening in the moment. They complement each other well. Still, as enjoyable as their writing can be, the filmmaking around them — aerial shots, time lapse photography, cuts to the couple looking engrossed — is less inspired than their project.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes. Watch on HBO platforms.