David Byrne’s ambivalence toward working and middle-class Americans is the basis for some of the Talking Heads best songs. Like few other rock bands, the Heads could approximate the (kind of lame and pathetic) hopeful, temporary joy non-Bohemian types experience in moving to a new apartment building or writing fake sitcom pilots. But More Songs About Buildings and Food concludes flyover-state anthem “The Big Country” with Byrne’s assertions “I wouldn’t live there if you paid me to” and “It’s not even worth talking about those people down there.”
Eight years later, Byrne’s directorial debut, set and filmed in small-town Texas, talks exclusively about the exact sort of red-state nobodies the narrator of “Big Country” claims don’t merit discussion. There’s more than a hint of condescension in Byrne’s Our Townish satire of Vernon, Texas’ residents, who are preparing to celebrate their town’s sesquicentennial with a parade and talent show. But there’s also an (albeit equally patronizing) amount of affection, too, for the isolation-bred naiveté, a “quality” endangered by the rapid advance of modern technology.
Youngish John Goodman is expectedly great here, exemplifying the digital-age bumpkin as Louis Fyne, a country-singing lab technician searching for a wife via television commercials and voodoo. And Swoosie Kurtz’s Miss Rollings — who never leaves her bed, not because of a disability, but because she has enough money not to — could be a biting commentary on middle-class America, but Byrne’s near-envy of the innocence and ignorance legitimizes her worldview. But as with Byrne’s albums, the film’s most inspired moments are seeming non sequiturs. Jo Harvey Allen steals the film as a pathological liar who claims to have saved Rambo’s life in Vietnam and attributes her psychic powers to having been born with a tail. And, in the film’s best scene, Annie McEnroe soundtracks a fashion show featuring models wearing feathered sculptures and brick-patterned evening wear with her own rendition of Talking Heads song “Dream Operator.” Any social commentary intended in her junior-leaguer’s untrained vocals and jerky, self-conscious (perhaps even Byrnes-ian) choreography is ambiguous, but the surreal beauty in her performance is definitely worth talking about.