Once every couple of years, I go to visit my parents for a week at their home perched far above the small Hawaiian town of Kona. As I settle into the particular rhythms of the island and its community, they start to tug at my soul. What if, instead of living in the city with all of its frenetic activity, I moved out there and stared out at that glorious view every day? What if, instead of sitting in front of a computer all day, I grew coffee or raised miniature goats? I seriously entertain these notions every time I go. In the end, the inertia of my life in Chicago sucks me back to its frenzied array of commitments and distractions. Every time I watch Local Hero, the 1983 comedy from Scottish director Bill Forsyth, I’m left pondering the same types of questions.

Local Hero is the story of Mac [Peter Riegert], a successful Dallas oil company man sent to rural Scotland. His mission: to negotiate for the purchase of the hamlet of Ferness for development as an oil terminal. As Mac spends more time in the town, he grows increasingly attached to it and its quirky inhabitants. Meanwhile, the villagers bustle with excitement over a potential windfall. Through this simple story, Bill Forsyth crafts a gentle comedy which beautifully portrays the human heart and the way it yearns for what it does not have without appreciating the present.

I’m always struck by the way that Local Hero unearths a deep-seating desire that’s not met by my cosmopolitan life in Chicago. Watching Mac marvel at the northern lights reminds me that the diversity of experience and material wealth provided by the city isn’t the end-all-be-all of existence. Seeing the people of Ferness come together as a town for a night of fun reminds me that we can easily forget other ways of life that would fill the emptiness brought by the anonymity of the city. 

No one represents the hollow nature of material success and cosmopolitan living better than Mac’s boss, Felix Happer [Burt Lancaster]. Despite owning a successful oil company, Happer spends his days obsessing over astrological signs rather than work. He hires crackpot therapists to help him through his loneliness. There’s a sadness behind his eyes, as though he’s wondering “is this it?” all the time. Here is a man at the pinnacle of society who still can’t shake a sense that something is missing. If Happer can’t be content with his success, what hope do I have?

It’s easy to forget that I have other options when I’m wrapped up in life. I don’t have to live in an apartment surrounded by anonymous neighbors. I don’t have to strive for more digits in my bank account. I don’t have to live in a place that buzzes with so much energy that I can’t see the stars at night. For a moment or two while I’m watching Local Hero, the barriers that insulate me from another life fall away and leave me pondering other lives that might be.

And yet Local Hero also reminds me that the human heart is fickle, always desiring the thing it does not have. The film isn’t interested in portraying one form of life as superior to another. It isn’t capitalism or poverty that are to blame for discontent. Yearning for someone else’s lot is just a part of being human. We are repeatedly reminded throughout the movie that the locals are materially poor and welcome the wealth that selling to the oil company will bring. At one point, when Mac expresses hesitation over destroying Ferness’ way of life, Victor, a Soviet fisherman who frequently visits Ferness tells Mac, “I like it here, but it is a tough life for the locals. You should be proud of yourself, making them millionaires.” As much as I want to be a miniature goat herder in Hawaii sometimes, I’m forced to realize that the Hawaiian miniature goat herder must wonder if he would be more fulfilled bathed in the bright lights of the city.   

When the closing credits of Local Hero roll, I feel like I’ve been on a vacation to rural Scotland. The trip is over. I’m grateful for the experience of a different way of life and blue because I have to leave it behind. I’m left wondering why I don’t just stay there and stare upward as the northern lights swirl across the night sky. I resolve to find that sense of community and calm that I feel during my short stay in Ferness. And yet, I’m also reassured that my yearning makes me a normal member of the human race. We all have our own Ferness.

Here's what to expect this week:

  • An essay on the film's themes on modern life and community
  • Filmography on underheralded filmmaker Bill Forsyth
  • Related Review of Powell & Pressburger's I Know Where I'm Going!
  • Streaming recommendations
  • And more!