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IN SHORT: Very well made, for the arthouse crowd. [Rated PG-13 for thematic material and some sexual content. 100 minutes]
There are only a few topics that, in and of themselves, can make steam come out of people's ears (metaphorically speaking, of course). The one word topic in this case is abortion . . . everybody take a deep breath . . . . We know to tread lightly around any discussion of this sensitive and controversial subject, and let any film that deals with it sink or swim all on its own.
We sit through indies looking for new talent whose names we try to remember as the years move on. We've been told we give too many "attaboys" to those who make independent movies, just for getting their films made. We've got readers who call us on the carpet by readers when we don't shred the really bad ones in the same way we shred the A-list releases. So . . .
Writer/Director Ben Hickernell's Lebanon, PA script pulls the emotional rage out of the subject of abortion and puts its focus is strictly on family. Who steps up. Who puts on the pressure. Who runs away. Who gets sucked in to the maelstrom even though he has no idea what he's doing. And, yes, how our main character deals with everything once word gets out in her senior high school class and her "situation" becomes more than a family affair. Hickernell's great script is made greater by his sure hand as a director and by across the board, top of the line performances from a whole mess of actors we've never heard of. They come from other indies and from the Philadelphia stage, according to the press notes. While Mary Beth Hurt's name may ring a bell for cinephiles, the only name you're going to be hearing from here on in is that of lead Rachel Kitson.
Lebanon PA is the rarity where the talent is literally everywhere. Betcha thought Cranky was going to drop the hammer, eh?
Okay, for those that need it all spelled out, we start in Philadelphia, where Will (Josh Hopkins), a 35-years old marketing guy of some kind -- he will later take credit for an ad campaign that promotes "terrible" ice cream as delicious -- is making a presentation to some clients. As a lovely sound track plays and plays and plays, Will is slipped a note that his father has died. The sound track keeps playing for a bit until Will makes it back to his father's place of residence in the small town of the film title. Opening credits finally roll and we get to important stuff like dialog.
The quick backstory is that Will is an only child, raised from about the age of ten by his mom (Mary Beth Hurt). The divorce was messy and, apparently, mom raised her son to hate his daddy. They never had a lot of contact, aside from the occasional Thanksgiving dinner. Still, Will must settle his father's affairs in Lebanon, PA. He plans to travel back and forth on weekends, in dad's VW Bug (new version), whose bumper stickers read "Save the Whales" and "Keep the Planet Green" and mark the driver as one of those wacky liberals. There is also a strangely out of synch pro "Pro-Choice" sticker. We write "out of synch" because for the last 30 years "Pro-Choice" has been a euphemism for the anti-abortion viewpoint. We think the film is trying to imply that the dead dad was indeed pro-choice (to abort or not). We're not sure when, or even if, the terminology changed; it is the only sticking point for us in evaluating this film.
In Lebanon, Will meets neighbors: CJ (Rachel Kitson) is 17 going on 18. She lives across the street, with single father Andy (Ian Merrill Peakes) and the usual jerk of a brother Chase (Hunter Gallagher). The reason Andy has been forced to raise his kids as a single is unique -- meaning we can't remember seeing it before in any of the films we've reviewed -- so we're keeping it secret. It has the potential to add all sorts of emotional fireworks to the story (there we go again thinking genre templates) but when the topic comes up, it comes up in an entirely different context. Again, this is terrific writing, folks. CJ and Will hit if off -- Andy opens his home to the stranger. As it turns out, CJ is hoping to go to college at Drexel in Philadelphia, and pretty much steam rolls Will into taking her back to Philly to see the campus. Dad to let her make the trip with, for all intents and purposes, a veritable stranger. What Dad doesn't know is what CJ has confided to Will; that she is pregnant. That, for her, the trip out of town allows access to a "Planned Parenting" clinic (it's a variation to avoid trademark stuff) where she can access information about abortion without anybody knowing. Small towns, you know, talk.
Lest you get the wrong idea, Will spends his evenings in the Fran's Tavern where he meets Vicki (Samantha Mathis), a teacher in the school where Will's father taught. There, a game of darts -- lots of drunken women on a girl's night out -- makes a sort of attraction develop. It develops enough from there to make Will think that there may be a sort of reason to resettle in Lebanon. Vicki is already not too happily married, y'see. We'll let you think too much about the potential in that pair of sentences.
When word leaks about CJ's pregnancy, spurred by the gossip of her fellow high school classmates who figure things out because of her morning sickness, everything hits the fan. Parents confer and the local priest shows to guide the discussion and CJ's reaction to the boy who dunnit and his dad about the questions of responsibility will provide some surprises. That still leaves her to deal with her fellow seniors who gossip incessantly about her "situation," driving a good hunk of the back end. That still leaves enough emotional junk that all kinds of surprises drop onto the viewer when they are least expected.
Or let's just give props to Rachel Kitson's performance as CJ. It is a phenomenal debut. Her role is one which could be overacted until it sinks the entire film. Kitson flat out nails it. We don't normally comment on an actor's chops since that's their job. This is the exception to the rule.
One last digression: We will say that we're glad that we've never been in the position where the question of abortion would be raised. Our high school sex ed course focussed on STD's -- abortion wasn't legal until my senior year -- using hard core, truly stomach turning photographic visual aids. If that curriculum had survived longer than the one year that it did in my school system, the boys-to-men generation wouldn't be loathe to use condoms.
We have known women who have had abortions. We have known women who have carried to term and given their child up for adoption. We are not about to tell you our personal position because that isn't the point of this job. We will say that the residents of Lebanon, PA, most of the ones we see in this film, seem to be anti-abortion. Our own gut feeling tells us that there are those within the community that may be thankful for Roe v. Wade, but they are well hidden.
That being written, Lebanon PA is topically about as close to an anti-abortion film (minus the technicolor shots of a kicking and screaming fetus) as you can get. When Vicki says to CJ, "let me tell you my story" and the film cuts away, Cranky's brain was screaming its own made up dialog. What Vicki says, the film never tells, and this bit of plot comes so late in the film that we wouldn't tell anyhow. Hickernell's approach as a director avoids all the usual generic hysteria that tends to drive teen pregnancy themed movies, like screaming confrontations with patronizing know nothings who, of course, think they do know something. The one know nothing in this film is dispensed with in two brief scenes that will provoke its own reaction from you readers. Promise.
Nothing about Lebanon, PA is predictable. . . a real good thing. If nothing else, maybe a breeding kid will see this film and take away the message: Use a condom.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Lebanon, PA, he would have paid . . .
Lebanon, PA is easily an $8 or $9 rating for those who prefer arthouse fare. Lebanon, PA is a well made indieflick that has all the elements and talent in place and just falls short of building its climax into the punch in the stomach (sic) that it could deliver. That falls on Ben Hickernell 's shoulders as the film's editor -- we see a film that could have crossed the divide into the mass market and may not. We hope we're wrong
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