Life has gone to shit for advertising executive Will (Josh Hopkins). His girlfriend has left him, and his father has died, so it’s goodbye Big City Philadelphia and hello to rural Lebanon, Pennsylvania, to settle his estranged father’s affairs for his mother (Mary Beth Hurt), and sell his dad’s house. Once in Lebanon, he befriends his cousin Andy (Ian Merrill Peakes) and Andy’s teenage kids CJ (Rachel Kitson) and Chase (Hunter Gallagher). CJ takes a particular shine to Will, as she wants to go to college in Philly, and they become aligned as friends. Meanwhile Will pursues an affair with local schoolteacher Vicki (Samantha Mathis), who also happens to be married, and Will begins to sink into small town life to forget his current woes back home. Unfortunately, life in Lebanon gets just as complicated.
While the film definitely starts out primarily as the tale of Big City Will, CJ’s story becomes just as large and dramatic, to the point where this isn’t a single protagonist story, but multiple. Both Will and CJ dominate the film with the most amazing of balance, and it’s a testament to both of the actors, Josh Hopkins and Rachel Kitson, that neither one comes out as the main hero. Life is rarely just one person’s story; it’s a weave of multiple souls, and “Lebanon, PA” lets us take a strong look.
Ben Hickernell’s “Lebanon, PA” is an exceptional film, somehow managing to stay engaging and poignant without resorting to sappy music cues or overwrought indie film dramatic clichés. The actors are all on top of their game and though the film forks between Hopkins’s Will and Kitson’s CJ, it could’ve easily kept my interest had it detoured longer with Mathis’s Vicki or Peakes’s Andy. You just can’t help but get swept into their lives, even when things get painful emotionally (and boy do they ever; at one point I wanted to travel to Lebanon myself and slap some sense into the folks giving Kitson’s CJ such a hard time, but then I remembered, hey, jackass, it’s a movie). I actually cared about these characters.
This film could’ve gone wrong in so many ways. The story is nothing new: “mid-30s, successful city boy is forced by family tragedy to head to the small town where his values are out of sync with everyone else. While there he meets someone who is the unlikeliest of friends, who is in the opposite position, stuck with blossoming big city problems and considerations while stuck in the small town. Small town has the type of charm that leads City Boy to want to honeymoon from his life, though he’s out of place.” I mean, come on, there’s ample opportunity for over-the-top displays of acting and dramatic shouting and “AHHHHHH! The angst of LIFE!!!!” and quirky caricatures of humans but the film keeps it simple. The cinematography is accomplished (unlike many indie productions nowadays, this looks like a film), so it’s not shakey-cam Hell and the film is, overall, subtle in the strongest of ways.
If you’ve read the above and thought, “Ewwww, why would I want to see this?” then think again, because I’ve done you a disservice. “Lebanon, PA” is a beautiful film with powerful characters and a story you can really connect with in a way that won’t make you feel gross or manipulated. This is the complexity of life; these things actually happen.