Monday, April 25, 2011

A mature Josh Hopkins adds ballast to Ben Hickernell's quiet, thoughtful LEBANON, PA

Only to distinguish it, I imagine, from last year's "tank movie," the title of Ben Hickernell's new film is LEBANON, PA -- which is one abbreviation too many for full impact. While we wouldn't want to confuse the content of this city-mouse-meets-country-mice, culture-war tale with Beirut or terrorism, the word Lebanon arrives so freighted with everything from religious to historic to present-day significance, it seems almost a shame not to let it stand on its own. Or find another, less-recently used title. Since Mr. Hickernell (shown below) has chosen to go the PA route, we'll follow him because his film proves worth seeing for a number of reasons.

These include its take on religion, city life vs country life, "Christian" living, teenage pregnancy, forced marriage, adultery and abortion -- to name a few of the things that weave their way through the narrative of what is, considering all of the above, a surprisingly quiet and thoughtful movie. Mr. Hickernell -- who looks awfully young to be have already written, directed and edited his second movie (the first one, Cellar, arrived six years ago) -- finds plenty of positives and negatives in all of the people and situations he tracks here, and his ability to allow us to see these fully and to understand why and how they impact on each other is what makes his movie more than merely worthwhile.

This wider angle and deeper context is particularly true of the movie's view of religion. We see its kindly face in the daughter CJ (a lovely performance by newcomer Rachel Kitson, above), as she says grace with her newly-discovered cousin Will, played by Josh Hopkins (below). Later, in the what is probably the scariest scene in the movie, as CJ and her boyfriend are forced to meet with their priest and both sets of parents, they are told that when they marry -- no "if" here -- the group will ensure that they have everything they need including "good jobs." Suddenly religious faith turns into a kind of prison in which everything from the social network to gainful employment is frighteningly "assured" for those who follow the faith and its rules.

All of the situations found in the film are viewed from both the angles of the religious right and from the liberal left, and while I believe the filmmakers sympathies finally lie with the latter, he does not make the "citified lefties" always right. In fact, they -- Hopkin's Will, his mom (played by Mary Beth Hurt, below), and the ad agency where he works -- all come off as not a little tainted. And the quieter life of Lebanon appears initially placid and appealing enough to attract a fellow who has just experiences a romantic break-up and the loss of his father.

Back and forth we go with our characters -- eventually including a pretty teacher (Samantha Mathis, below), married but frustrated with hubby and career, who gets entangled with Will -- as they move forward, backward and sideways, trying to handle all the change that must come.

The loveliest -- and key -- scene arrives as CJ's boyfriend (well-played by Josh Hunt) apologizes and explains to the confused girl why and how he now feels. Thanks to the filmmaker's skill at conception and execution, along with the fine performances from his cast, these few moments, beautifully written, are both moving and on the mark.

I make no claims to greatness for this little movie. The filmmaker is still learning his craft, but he, along with Mike Lemon, who did the casting, have chosen their actors very well. Hopkins, known mostly for his work on TV, is getting older now, with a face that is nicely showing its age (but a body that's still in terrific shape). He brings real gravity to the situation, even though he is called upon mostly to react to things. The writer/director understands well that it's the outsider, acting as an unbeknownst-even-to-himself catalyst, who enables the oncoming change, and Hopkins'  face mirrors beautifully much of what is going on here.

Ms Mathis and Ms Hurt are both, as usual, in fine form, and though neither is called upon to do a whole lot of "acting," what they give us is truthful and smart. Ian Merrill Peakes, above, as dad to CJ and her brother Chase, has the strongest role as the man torn between his religion (which includes his favored place in society) and what might be best for his kids. You feel his pain, as well as his inability to withstand the shock of the new.

The younger set is well-drawn, too (the mean girls in this film are spurred on both by jealousy and religion), with Kitson, Hunt and Hunter Gallagher (above) as CJ's brother Chase, all doing splendid jobs. I don't know whether or not the movie will draw many tourists to its titular town, but it's certainly put the place on my memory map, and I suspect it might do the same for yours.

Lebanon, PA opens this Friday in New York City and Philadelphia, and next Friday, May 6, in Lebanon, Pittsburgh and Harrisburgh, PA. Click here to discover all the cities and theaters at which the film will be appearing.  There will also be a number of Q&As with the film's stars, with the filmmaker and even the composer (Matt Pond PA). Click here for the most current update on the personal appearances.

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