The new podcast S-Town, from the same team that made Serial, launched on March 28, releasing all seven of its episodes at once for eager listeners to binge on. As the story begins, reporter Brian Reed travels to Woodstock, Alabama, after being contacted by one of the town’s residents, John B. McLemore, to investigate a murder that John believes was committed and then covered up.
But soon the podcast takes a hard left turn, with the crime fading into the background as Reed begins to focus on the mysterious story of the town’s residents — especially John himself. And though S-Town may ultimately be ethically questionable, it’s also extremely addictive.
That, of course, means many people have already burned through S-Town’s seven episodes and are aching for more. Luckily, documentarians have been telling stories like S-Town’s for a long time, and many of the resulting films are available to stream. Here are five great documentaries that share S-Town’s interest in complicated people with complex stories and the unforgettable characters who make up small-town life.
Peter Dunning is the grizzled, 70-year-old, fiercely individualist owner of Mile Hill Farm, a 187-acre organic farm in Vermont where he raises livestock and lives alone. In Peter and the Farm, director Tony Stone follows Peter around for a year, filming as he tends to the farm and tells stories from his life. Peter’s candid matter-of-factness, pessimism, and wide range of interests recall S-Town’s primary subject, John; in addition to being a farmer, Peter is a thinker, a reader, a craftsman, and an artist with a rich personal history. And as time goes on, the layers of Peter’s timeworn facade begin to crack, with Stone capturing his personal crisis on camera as it happens. Everything in Peter’s history, as it turns out, is not as it seems.
Errol Morris’s homage to the indelible characters he encountered in the small Florida swamp town of Vernon premiered in 1981 at the New York Film Festival, and it hasn’t aged a day since. Morris originally showed up in Vernon to make a documentary called Nub City, about a disturbing trend that saw many residents blow off their own limbs, usually with shotguns, for the insurance money. But after receiving death threats from some of his subjects, Morris cut his footage into this film, which lets the remarkably eccentric residents of the town tell their stories in their own unforgettable words. Vernon, Florida doesn’t have a plot, exactly, but boy does it have characters.
Vivian Maier was an eccentric loner who worked as a nanny and a housekeeper. She is also considered one of the greatest street photographers of the 20th century — but her work went unrecognized during her lifetime, partly because she was a mystery to everyone, even the families for whom she worked. Maier died in 2009, and a few months later a Chicago collector named John Maloof, who’d acquired some of her photographs, posted them to Flickr. They were an instant success. Maloof teamed up with Charlie Siskel to make Finding Vivian Maier, which pulls back the curtain on Maier’s life and reveals a complicated, brilliant woman who defies easy categorization and seems to have yearned for an existence far beyond her own.
One of the most remarkable things about S-Town is how willing the residents of Woodstock are to talk to a reporter from New York about their lives — and how the reporter’s outsider status both reveals and complicates the story. Similarly, The Other Side — made by Italian filmmaker Roberto Minervini — is an often devastating look at two rural Louisiana residents who are struggling with poverty and drug addiction. From his relatively removed perspective, Minervini is able to train his camera on his subjects and their family and friends and simply let them talk, providing a window into their lives, passions, and anger (particularly against black people and, above all, President Obama).
Floods of people poured into Williston, North Dakota, during its oil boom, hoping to make a fortune. And The Overnighters starts out as a film about a local Lutheran pastor, Jay Reinke, who decides to serve the transient workforce by allowing them to sleep in his church, even as the town grows more fearful about the influx. But as the movie goes on, the town’s story — and Reinke’s personal history — gets more complex, heading in directions nobody expected. As a look at small-town life and at one man whose past complicates his present and future, The Overnighters refuses to give any easy answers.