Life in Middle America

Director: Frederick Wiseman

Run Time: 143 mins

John Cougar Mellencamp famously sang about his love for small towns in the 1985 hit song that became a ballad for those who rejected city life. 

The new documentary Monrovia, Indiana has a similar feel, although it likely will be enjoyed by “city” folks, too. 

The film documents the day-to-day lives of the citizens of Monrovia, Ind. – population 1,443 – as they work, worship and play during a typical week. 

But without music or narration, this film is unlike most documentaries you’ve seen. We sit with customers in the local cafe. Then we watch a local government meeting. Then we take part in a funeral.     

It is a wonderful, fly-on-the-wall depiction of a Midwestern life that most people will ever experience for themselves. 

Monrovia was directed by veteran filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, who has helmed some 40 documentaries since 1967 and received an Academy Honorary Award in for “illuminating lives in the context of social, cultural and government institutions.” His latest film certainly achieves that.

Wiseman’s documentary works because it does what all great films do: It broadens our knowledge and appreciation of the world while forcing us to consider different viewpoints. We sit in on a Bible study, a tattoo session and a gun shop conversation – all in the same film.     

The documentary also works because it gives us a peek into the life of small-town America. More than 60 percent of Americans live in cities, which comprise only 3.5 percent of land area. Monrovia is an up-close view of the rest of America – you know, “flyover country.” It’s the region that clothes us. It’s the region that feeds us.

Yet the people of Monrovia are just fine living in an area that’s less populated and less visited. They don’t want city life. 

We visit a local government meeting, where the discussion is not how to grow the town but how to keep it from getting too big. Sure, they want to attract businesses and jobs to the area, but they don’t want it to become Indianapolis, either.    

Monrovia citizens enjoy what the city can’t provide: a slow pace of life where everyone knows your name. This slow pace is evident when Wiseman shows us breathtaking scenes of the countryside, where tractors rule and animals roam. Then he takes us to local businesses, where conversation topics range from baseball to blueberries. 

It’s relaxing. It’s inviting. It’s enticing. The film’s pace mirrors the town’s view of life.      

Who knows? Monrovia even may inspire you to hop in a car and drive to your nearest small town… simply to walk the square and visit the local cafe.    

Monrovia is a celebration of small towns and community but also of friendship and family. More significantly, though, it’s a celebration of our shared humanity. Perhaps the people of Monrovia didn’t grow up in the big city, but they have more in common with the people of New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago than both sides realize. They work hard each day. They persevere through problems. They love their family, too. 

For that alone, Monrovia, Indiana is worth watching.     

Written by Michael Foust

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