Six movies that probe the good and the bad—mostly the bad—of small town life

Some people (I’m talking to you, John Mellencamp) celebrate the simple pleasures of small towns. Others, such as this writer, couldn’t wait to hightail it out of their village and make for the action and adventure of the city. Whichever camp you fall into, you’re sure to enjoy these cinematic explorations of small town life.

Young Adult     (2011)

Charlize Theron plays Mavis Gary, an alcoholic, divorced writer who returns to her hometown in a delusional attempt to reclaim the glory of her high school years, including her former boyfriend. The problem: he is now happily married and a new parent. Directed by Jason Reitman from a screenplay by Diablo Cody, this dark comedy doesn’t really hang together but still features some trenchant writing and a great supporting performance from Patton Oswalt as Mavis’ self-appointed conscience.

Pleasantville      (1998)

Thanks to a mysterious remote control, two discontented modern teenagers find themselves stuck in Pleasantville, a fictional TV town where everything is black-and-white and, well, pleasant. The teens’ contemporary sensibilities gradually start to change the TV hamlet and its residents, literally introducing color into their monochromatic sit-com lives. The terrific cast includes Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon, Joan Allen, William H. Macy and Don Knotts.

Mystic Pizza      (1988)

When it was first released, this film was praised for its poignant distillation of the awkward transition from high school life to adulthood for three girls who work in a Connecticut pizzeria. Now it’s best remembered for launching the Hollywood careers of Vincent D’Onofrio, Annabeth Gish, Lili Taylor, and a coltish, effervescent teenager named Julia Roberts. Star power aside, Mystic Pizza still retains appealing charm and a coming-of-age story that doesn’t settle for obvious tropes.

Local Hero       (1988)

Peter Riegert is a too-slick-for-his-own-good oil executive sent to an isolated berg on the Scottish coast to con the locals into a deal that would turn their town into an industrial port. But the quirky denizens of Ferness are fully aware of the scheme and have ambitions of their own. Unapologetically offbeat, the gentle but resonant fish-out-of-water comedy was written and directed by Bill Forsyth, and also features Burt Lancaster and Peter Capaldi (the latest Doctor Who).

The Last Picture Show      (1971)

A simply astonishing cast (Jeff Bridges, Cybil Shepherd, Ellen Burstyn, Ben Johnson and Oscar-winner Cloris Leachman) portray residents of a hard-scrabble West Texas town in the 1950s in this acclaimed film directed by Peter Bogdanovich. Based on a starkly beautiful novel by Larry McMurtry and shot in black and white, The Last Picture Show captures the painful precipice both between adolescence and maturity, and between staying home and leaving for good.

It’s a Wonderful Life      (1946)

The ultimate small-town movie and a Christmas classic rolled into one, Frank Capra’s tribute to homespun virtue still resonates nearly 70 years after its release. James Stewart plays George Bailey, a modest man unaware of the indelible effect he has had on his community. That is, until an angel shows him the light by erasing George’s life from history, with devastating results. The cast includes Donna Reed, Henry Travers, Thomas Mitchell and Lionel Barrymore as the odious banker, Mr. Potter.

Mark Fields
Mark Fields has reviewed films for Out & About since October 2008. In addition, he has written O&A profiles of documentarian Harry Shearer and actress Aubrey Plaza. Mark also has written on the movies for several publications in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and his home state of Indiana, where he also served as on-air movie critic for Indianapolis’s public radio station. Mark has been an adjunct instructor of film history at Rowan University since 1998. A career arts administrator, he is the executive director of Wilmington’s Grand Opera House and now lives on Market Street. Mark spent the fastest 22 minutes of his life as an unsuccessful contestant on Jeopardy…sadly, there were no movie questions.