While Hollywood has always celebrated the great big cities of the United States such as New York and LA, it hasn’t paid as much attention to the vast, emptier parts of the country.
Still, there are many great films set in rural America, about rural America. The following list suggest a few options for you regarding this setting and theme.
Director Christopher Guest, who most people would recognize as the Six-Fingered Man in The Princess Bride, began his string of mockumentary films with this movie set in the fictional small-town of Blaine, Missouri. The main cast is a group of amateur actors try to put on a theatrical performance to celebrate the town’s 150th anniversary, in hopes that a Broadway producer will come watch and discover them. The entire movie seem low-stakes and trivial, which sets us up to be charmed by the eccentric characters who care a lot about the various events of their home.. Guest and his cohort of comedic actors improvised most of the film, the result being light-hearted exuberance that at once pokes fun at and celebrates small-town America weirdness. Fans of the American TV show The Office will quickly recognize and enjoy the mockumentary style of Waiting for Guffman.
Robert Duvall won a Best-Actor Oscar for his turn in this film. He plays ex-country-music star Mac Sledge, who begins the movie by waking up in a hotel room in the middle of nowhere, Texas. Sledge’s life, ruined by divorce and alcohol, begins anew after he meets the hotel owner and her son. The movie is mostly as sweet as its title suggests, though all of the characters have and continue to suffer greatly. The wind blows through rural Texas throughout the film here, full of dust and possibilities and country songs.
Shot in Plainview, Nebraska, just over two hours from Dordt University, Nebraska features a father-son buddy-road-trip across the state. The son, played by comedian Will Forte in a more serious role, takes his semi-senile father (Bruce Dern) to Lincoln, Nebraska, because the father believes he’s really won a million dollars in a sweepstakes marketing scam. Filmed in stark black-and-white, the empty spaces of Nebraska have never looked more classic or more haunting, while the town and characters feel genuine.
It may seem like cheating to include a movie set in New Jersey in a “rural America” list, but this film is in as remote a location as the previous three films. This truly excellent film stars Peter Dinklage as a laconic train-hobbyist, who inherits an abandoned train depot, which he turns into his new home. He’s a loner and introvert, yet he finds several unusual friends without intending to, including a female artist and a gregarious hot-dog vendor. There aren’t many movies that depict unusual friendships better than this movie does. I am betting that almost everybody reading this will like this movie a lot, as it’s both sweet and very well-made.
This recent movie is set in the 1980s, when a Korean family immigrates to rural Arkansas in order to live a better life, trying to grow Korean vegetables for a budding immigrant population. The story is a classic one—an immigrant comes to the U.S. to be a farmer—with ironic inversions of the typical tropes. Those include the Korean father as a rational man who tries to develop the land using observation and science, while the “natives” (who are mostly white Pentecostal Christians) seem to believe only in spirits and miracles. This is a thoughtful movie about families, church life, and rural, independent living.