Pennsylvania, as James Carville once memorably described it, is “Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, with Alabama in the middle.” Located some 90 miles west of our city, Lebanon decidedly registers as the faux-Deep South—a funhouse mirror of metropolitan life in which urban cramp is replaced by sprawling greens, drinkers drive to—and from—bars and everyone, it’s assumed, goes to church and voted for McCain. It’s to these backwater digs that Philly ad man Will (Cougar Town’s Josh Hopkins) retreats after word that his father, who relocated there some years prior, has died.
Despite the earnest tone and soothing Matt Pond PA score, Ben Hickernell’s indie drama Lebanon, Pa. takes an anthropological interest in the clusterfuck that ever so gradually forms. Hot off a break-up and approaching a midlife crisis that could potentially mirror his pop’s, Will finds comfort in the modest open-air leisure of central Pennsylvania. But his presence unwittingly sabotages two sheltered lives. First, he can’t help but mack on antsy but married school teacher Vicki (a shockingly credible Samantha Mathis). Second, his fancy city ways embolden teen cousin CJ (Rachel Kitson), who winds up saddled with an unwanted pregnancy. The A-word is definitely not in her redneck father’s vocabulary.
The calamity that results eats up the third act, which would make it excellent fodder for either side of the abortion debate if Hickernell’s film didn’t make a rather heroic go at avoiding polemic. Without simplifying or chickening out, Lebanon, Pa. reveals an interest not so much in the politics of abortion but in how it affects people. While Hopkins, never much more than charmingly glib, recedes into the background, Kitson takes over the narrative reins. A newbie, her performance is touchingly awkward and, therefore, genuine. Her wide open face projects innocence gradually sullied from forces beyond her prediction, her glaring eyes slowly succumb to sadness and disappointment. It’s strange to see an Amerindie so retro, but also one that, with great calm, limns our culture clash without pandering to either side.