I’m proud of where I grew up. Sure, our biggest landmark is our Wal-mart, and our greatest achievement as a town was making the 1985 Guinness Book of World Records for most fast food eateries in a single one mile strip of land, but I still get pangs whenever I think of good ol’ Bucks County. Of course, that could just be because I’m watching a M. Night Shamalyan movie. I was curious to see this flick for a reason common to most of the other folks in the audience — because I was from PA. Lebanon, PA is a rural flick, a country-mouse/city-mouse parable turned inside out and Doc Hollywood, only a little less hokey. When a Philadelphia advertising executive’s father dies, he must travel to the rural hamlet of Lebanon, PA to settle his affairs. He meets the locals, including a distant cousin and his daughter, who turns out to have problems of her own, namely an unexpected bun in the oven. Relative newcomer director, editor and screenwriter Ben Hickernell does an admirable job respecting both sides of the Christian argument and getting some powerful performances out of his actors — particularly Philly locals Rachel Kitson and Ian Merill Peakes. Overall, Lebanon, PA is a bittersweet dramedy that admirably captures the feel of my hometown neck of the woods while kind of drowning itself in its own saccharine at times. While Hickernell is able to turn a few new tricks, the old clichés and tropes are so prevalent you can practically hear the “These Problems Matter” chorus humming in the background.
Will (Josh Hopkins, “Cougar Town”) just broke up with his long time girlfriend, only to find out that his estranged father passed away. Dad got sick of old mom (Mary Beth Hurt) bitching up the place, so he pulled up stakes and set down a mile west in the Amish hinterlands of Lebanon, PA. And now Will must go bury his father and arrange the house. While in for the funeral, Will meets his cousins of some degrees out. Andy (Ian Merill Peakes) is a gruff and devoutly Christian truck driver raising two children on his own. His daughter CJ (Rachel Kitson) is a perfect child. Polite, devout, and apparently sexually active. CJ discovers that she’s pregnant, and she confides in Will. Meanwhile, Will’s conveniently and immediately fallen for Lebanon local, Vicki (Samantha Mathis, back from the motherfucking grave and kicking ass), a married teacher. But that won’t stop our city boy and his city ways and so he’s determined to woo her.
From there, the script progresses where you’d expect it to go, unless you’ve never seen anything playing on ABC Family, and then to you I say a blessed and fortunate life you live. However, it doesn’t get there how you’d expect, which is part of what keeps Lebanon, PA just barely adrift in the medocri-tea. When CJ discovers that she’s pregnant, it’s not like she flies off the handle, runs crying up to her room, flings herself on the bed and tantrums until she gets her own sitcom on MTV2. She’s very calm and logical about it. She starts weighing her options. She goes to Planned Parenthood, and she goes to a Christian counseling center. Neither option is particularly appealing, so she starts to choose: adoption or abortion. I don’t know how he pulls it off, but that glorious bastard Hickernell manages to just careful edge it out of afterschool special. It’s never preachy. In fact, the Christianity is done very tastefully. Will’s the cocky atheist, but Rachel still insists on saying grace over her food. Andy brings the priest over and starts to force wedding plans on CJ and her boyfriend, but CJ handles the whole thing with a steady calm.
And while it was nice to see Samantha Mathis back in action, the Will-seeking-the-married schoolteacher storyline was completely baffling, but without it, the narrative would have gone all mushy like a victim of Sub-Zero’s spine-rip. We never see Vicki’s husband until after the affair, so we have no reason to hate him. Will seems perfectly content to swoop into town and destroy every life he can before sauntering back to Philly. And then, thanks to the feminine wiles of Ms. New Booty, Will starts deciding he might want to stay in the suburbs after all. This is the part of the story I enjoyed the most, watching the country devour the big city boy instead of the more common reverse. Small towns can be fiercely set in their ways, and the more liberal minds can get easily whomped by the unwavering faith of the small town devout. And, oh boy, does Will get his ass handed to him. Metaphorically. Well, and then physically.
While the plot points might make the less refined among you roll your eyes, the acting leaves no question to its fantastitude. The pros are tops. Josh Hopkins is incredibly charming as Will, and he damn well has to be. With the number of times he sticks his foot in his mouth, he’d be crapping Keds by page 15 if not for his natural vive. Samantha Mathis is still just as good as she was back when she was pumping the jam. Mary Beth Hurt is in that wonderful fierce old lady mode expertly crafted by Carrie Fisher. But it’s the Philly locals who simply destroy, putting out performances that show just how much skill comes from Brotherly Love. Ian Merill Peakes is so, so, so smashing as Andy. He’s a big dumb truck driver just trying to keep his kids happy and healthy. And I know that sounds like Thomas Jane’s Homeless Dad, but really Andy is so likable, even when he’s playing the bad guy. But I save my shiniest praise for young Rachel Kitson, who joins several other non-Mice Hice factory pressed teen actresses. This was her first film, which is unfathomable from the performance she throws down. She’s got a silent film star beauty, with giant expressive blue eyes and a gentle delivery that make you want to cradle her like a lamb, for God’s sake. I can’t think of an actress working today who could have pulled off the same faithful innocence without falling into pious or pissed. It’s the first of what I hope are many stellar performances from this young ingenue.
As another studious film critic put it, Lebanon, PA is the first film you almost feel obligated to make for a major festival. It’s incredibly safe, and at the same time will have a hell of a time finding an audience. It’s a little too vulgar for the Christians, and a little too Christian for the vulgarians. (You fuckers know who the fuck you are.) Hickernell needs to buckle down and have confidence in his shots. He’s still a little too flashy in his cutting and a little too on the nose with his topicality. But again, I cut the kid some slack because he’s out there doing it, and bringing film to my home turf. He’ll be back, and he’ll be back strong. And if nothing else, he can at least credit this film to bring to our attention the outstanding talent in the Philadelphia area in that of the alluring Rachel Kitson and the magnificent Ian Merill Peakes. It makes me proud of PA, and all the more aching to get back there to join the good fight.