King Coal (2023)

Directed by Elaine McMillion Sheldon

The cultural roots of coal continue to permeate the rituals of daily life in Appalachia even as its economic power wanes. The journey of a coal miner’s daughter exploring the region’s dreams and myths, untangling the pain and beauty, as her community sits on the brink of massive change.

Seattle International Film Festival 2023: Film #3

"First they came to mine the wood, then they came to mine the coal. Now they have to come to mine our memories." Spoken at a funeral near the end of this film, this is probably King Coal's most overt to J. D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy and the negative reputation of those whose cultural roots lie in the coal-mining communities of Appalachia. Yet if King Coal reminds me of anything at all, it's the similarities between the girl and the character of Lyra Silvertongue from Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, or perhaps Ivana Baquero's Ofelia in Pan's Labyrinth (2006), especially given that both characters share the innocence and imagination of a young girl, and are exploring dreams and myths in an attempt to find a lost kingdom. All these references to other works aside, however, King Coal is inventive and intimate entirely on its own terms, and its soft-touch integration of fantasy elements, deindustrialisation, the environmental impact of coal and historical footage avoids the kind of heavy-handedness and didacticism that one might expect from using children to tell a story.