In Ben Hickernell’s sophomore feature, “Lebanon, Pa.,” an ad exec journeys from Philadelphia to the titular burg in the Pennsylvania Bible Belt to attend the funeral of the father he barely knew. As its title implies, this is a film about place, and about what one gains and loses in so belonging. As long as the pic remains rooted in a specific locale’s rhythms, it imparts a sense of discovery; but when local color wears thin, bald ideological small-town/big-city oppositions intrude. Pic is playing theatrically in Gotham and Philly, but it’s real place may be on the smallscreen.
Will (Josh Hopkins), a high-powered adman at a cutthroat agency, has just been dumped by his longtime g.f. when he receives word of the death of his father, long estranged from his ambitious, career-driven mother (Mary Beth Hurt). Relaxing in the bucolic peacefulness of his father’s memento-filled home, Will begins to question the quality of his high-pressure existence. Raiding the garage, he marvels at the fleet of model sailboats his dad built in his spare time. Uncovering a lawnmower, he trims the front yard, treating the exercise like a spiritual experience.
At the same time, his newly met teenage cousin CJ (Rachel Kitson) is contemplating an opposite move; she wants to attend college in Philadelphia but, finding herself pregnant, is being railroaded by her judgmental high-school friends and well-meaning father (Ian Merrill Peakes) into an early marriage and life as a housewife.
Both Will and CJ claim strong ties to their home environments, but each begins to heed the siren call of an alternate way of life. In Will’s case, an encounter with the warm, intelligent but unhappily married Vicki (Samantha Mathis), strengthens and complicates the lure of Lebanon. For CJ, an unwitting visit to a right-to-life clinic clouds an already loaded decision. But unexpected support from the boyfriend responsible for her pregnancy leads her down some surprisingly non-Junoesque paths.
Thesping is solid, particularly on the distaff side, with Mathis and, to a lesser degree, Kitson generally stealing the show. Hurt’s character, bitter from the get-go, is too brusquely and unsympathetically written to elicit much emotion.
The pic’s heavy sociopolitical baggage sometimes threatens to swamp its fragile hold on cannily caught moments of authenticity. The violent reaction of two bar brawlers to Will’s pro-life bumper sticker and his dalliance with a married woman feel forced, as do Will’s near double-takes whenever CJ’s family says grace before a meal.