In the avalanche of junk about aliens, alternate universes, digital effects and comic-book superheroes, it is a rare treat to see a sweet, low-budget film about real people that is as ingratiating as Lebanon, Pa. The star is Josh Hopkins, a personable, enormously gifted actor with keen intuition and intelligent timing who is unfamiliar to me, but he’s done extensive work on Cougar Town and other series I’ve never seen. Proving, I guess, we should all be watching more television.
He plays Will, a bored, unfocused 35-year-old Philadelphia advertising drone who finds it difficult to move forward at the office or in relationships of any kind. The film opens with a black screen and a woman’s voice: “I’m tired of being mad at you. It’s not your fault. It’s not that you don’t love me. You don’t love anyone. That’s just not in you.” She is speaking to Will and she’s right. When Will’s estranged father dies in a town called Lebanon, he takes some time off to bury him and sell the house. With time on his hands, and attracted to the slow small-town pace, he finds himself on a course of introspection. During his visit, he learns a lot about the deceased father he never bothered to know, becomes inadvertently involved with the problems of the neighboring family across the street and finds a way to warm up to the outside world he’s busily ignored. He hangs out at the local bar and learns to play darts. He mows the lawn. He becomes enamored with a married woman named Vicki (the excellent Samantha Mathis) who taught school with his dad, and a pregnant teenage cousin named CJ (played without a hangnail by Rachel Kitson, making her debut) becomes enamored with him. It feels good to take a deep breath of country air and smell the roses. After 10 years in a job going nowhere and four years in a relationship that tanked, it’s no wonder he’s reached a crossroads in life. Maybe Lebanon is the detour he’s been looking for. It even helps him resolve the edgy relationship with his sour, unhappy mother (the always marvelous Mary Beth Hurt). What he learns, in time, is that you can’t run away from yourself. The difference between life in Lebanon and the city life he doesn’t want to return to is a difference in values. Lebanon is both an alternative to life, and a life unto itself, both of which must be faced with equal caution. Some people can make it, some can’t. In the end, some escape and some stay put, settling for the familiar. It’s interesting to see who does what, and why.
Lebanon, Pa. has been directed, written and edited by triple-threat newcomer Ben Hickernell. As a director, he knows what to do with a camera and how to handle actors, giving them enough time to grow on you. As a writer, he has a keen ear for the way people talk and relate, in big moments of revelation and intimate moments in bed. Will CJ get an abortion that will free her for college? Will her politically conservative father forgive her if she does? Will Vicki leave her husband and join Will in a new beginning? Mr. Hickernell the writer keeps us crossing our fingers. However, his editing skills need honing. This movie is so slow it needs jump-starting. Whole scenes grind to a halt before Mr. Hickernell the editor allows them to graciously reach a satisfactory conclusion. Still, the power of Mr. Hickernell the director makes us care. And I cannot praise Mr. Hopkins enough. Movie-star handsome but accessible, reacting to every emotional twist with layers of irritation, curiosity and warmth, he has a melting effect to his moment-to-moment acting. Why isn’t he bigger than George Clooney?
Not perfect, but vastly superior to most of the Hollywood dreck we’ve been getting lately, Lebanon, Pa. is a thoughtful and perceptive film well worth recommending.
Running time 100 minutes
Written and directed by Ben Hickernell
Starring Josh Hopkins, Samantha Mathis, Mary Beth Hurt