Sundance 2023 Review: Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s “King Coal” Digs Deep

Around the midway point of “King Coal,” Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s camera finds its way into a tattoo parlor where a man is getting inked with the image of a coal miner on his bicep, recounting the kind of story about an incident underground that you wouldn’t think anyone would want to commemorate. “You spend more time at work than with your family,” he tells his attendant artist and there comes to be something absurdly amusing as he seems to be testing their patience just a little longer when the camera cuts to a loved one sitting nearby, waiting for the job to be finished.

In Central Appalachia, Sheldon can’t help but find a little black humor in the home of black gold, the place she grew up and followed the opioid crisis in the region in such films as “Heroin(e)” and “Recovery Boys” before turning her attention to a longer standing addiction in West Virginia. Loosely presented as a year in the life, the film opens with a Christmas/New Year’s celebration where it’s considered a good thing that a lump of coal is placed under the tree in the center of town, the first of a few curious sights as a 5K commences with runners passing by doused in coal dust by those who might typically hand them water anywhere else and a fourth grade class hears a former miner extol the virtues of the fossil fuel, dressed and wearing black makeup as if he just emerged from the depths, all keeping alive a sense that coal continues to bring prosperity when there’s increasing evidence to the contrary.

If the director isn’t as reverential towards the rock as her neighbors are, which is understandable when every blessed event it’s thought to give to the community from the local football game to the King Coal Beauty Pageant comes with a tribute to the many who died in the mines, she does have a deep appreciation for Appalachia’s rich local oral tradition, where inspiration is abound with the natural beauty of lush green forests and rocky tops with fog rolling over them to add a little magic to any retelling about the lay of the land. Less a hook for the story to hang on than one to keep the viewer engaged, Sheldon employs a wry, world-weary voiceover to chart how such a devotion to coal came to be as she follows a red-haired lass (Lanie Marsh) discovers her surroundings for herself, calling on choreographer Celia Rowlson-Hall to craft dances for the girl around town.

The shrewd evocation of mythmaking in the mountains puts the lie to big one that’s been propagated around coal as an ongoing force for good, its time as the be-all, end-all economic driver in the area needing to come to an end when the relationship has literally become toxic. There’s no obvious replacement offered up by Sheldon, but it really does feel as if she’s looking directly into the soul of the community for answers, with Curren Sheldon’s arresting cinematography illuminating the resilience of those who have stuck around and unlocking the wonder still in the air that makes it feel that there’s something still untapped in the region that’s been left for dead. Pleasingly difficult to pin down when the narrative truly feels moved by the spirit, the fact that “King Coal” comes alive in the mind full of possibility makes one think the same potential exists on the ground.

“King Coal” will be available online through the Sundance Film Festival app until January 29th at 11:55 pm MT.